A solution to the pandemic?

H. L. Mencken famously wrote that, “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong”. That serves as a warning to anyone who thinks they have come up with a solution to a problem that has defied the best efforts of experts in the field. I come across such ‘solutions’ all the time from people who think they have solved a complex problem in physics. These are usually those who have done just a smattering of reading in that field,

So it is with some trepidation that I am proposing a solution to the current pandemic which is seeing a resurgence in the US. The idea is based on one of the things we know about the virus, which is that it cannot live for more than two weeks outside a living host, which is why are requiring people to quarantine for two weeks if they have come into contact with someone who may have had the virus. If they have not shown symptoms by then, we think they are not carriers. So if we could isolate everyone for two weeks, and send to hospital only those who develop signs of having the virus during that period, that should make sure that all the rest are not carriers.

What could be done is to set in advance a two-week period in which the entire nation would self-quarantine in their homes with just their family members and not go outside at all, for any reason whatsoever. Everything, and I mean everything, would shut down. By announcing the two-week period in advance, people could stock up supplies for that period. If some emergency came up such as requiring some medication or some infant needs which are things that are hard to predict, people could call an emergency number and emergency personnel would drop off the stuff at your door.

This would work for those societies that have access to electricity and refrigeration and phones. For those societies that do not have widespread access to those things, they could do what Sri Lanka did when it imposed a total nationwide curfew that lasted for about two weeks. They had trucks travel to all parts of the country providing supplies to people where they lived. Even in the US, there are many people who may not have the savings to stock up on two weeks’ worth of supplies so they will have to be given sufficient funds to do so.

The cost of a total shut down of the economy for two weeks would not be trivial but surely would be less than the ad hoc, on-and-off patchwork shutdowns that we have had and are likely to have again. The uncertainty is a large part of the problem of gaining public acceptance. If people know that they will be restricted for a definite and limited time, they are more likely to go along with it than when faced with an unknown duration. Also panic buying and hoarding are less likely to be problems if people know they only need to get along for two weeks.

I think Italy and South Korea did some version of this national action, and China did so for the Wuhan region, and they all achieved considerable success. If the two-week shutdown could be done on a global scale, that would be even better.

I am sure that this blog’s readers will point out why Mencken’s aphorism applies to my proposed solution. But even if this solution were feasible, the biggest obstacle to its implementation is the fact that the US has an idiot president who thinks that bluster and bravado is the best way to fight a virus and that a targeted plan of action is a sign of weakness.


  1. sqlrob says

    Given how hard it is to get people to wear masks, do you really think everyone would stay in? It would need to be longer than two weeks to account for all those idiots.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Lots of actual “essential” jobs would still need doing: keeping the water and electricity and voice/data flowing to/from the shut-ins, maintaining health care facilities, putting out fires, hauling trash, tending animals and crops, fixing holes in roofs, etc, etc, etc…

    Those who do fall sick during the quarantine period will require transportation to medical facilities, and others will need to travel to take care of those people’s children, family members needing living assistance, pets, homes…

    Meanwhile, sfaiu, asymptomatic shedders will remain, and on release will innocently infect uncounted numbers of their neighbors as all eagerly crowd together to share stories of how bored they were.

    Now, my neat, plausible, and wrong proposal starts with universal and mandatory testing of the entire population, all positive-results persons to receive free quarantining, treatment, and help with whatever problems those may entail, repeated until at least three population-wide assays come back 100% negative -- free puppies, kittens, ponies, and chocolate cake optional.

  3. says

    In Latvia we had testing, contact tracing by epidemiologists, and targeted quarantines (for everybody who was either confirmed sick or had been in contact with somebody sick). Social distancing rules here were actually less strict than in some other countries. It worked pretty well. Currently the amount of new daily cases has dropped to between 0 and 3 each day. Back in June, some of the social distancing rules were relaxed.

    Granted, this isn’t exactly and easy solution. Firstly, citizens need to cooperate with government guidelines and obey orders. For example, yesterday I heard on the radio that a person infected with COVID-19 has been in a specific bus and everybody else who had been in the same bus together with the infected person were ordered to call the local emergency number to inform epidemiologists and they had to sit at home for two weeks. If some people refuse to cooperate with such requests, then the virus will spread.

    Moreover, such approach is also expensive—government has spent lots of money on testing (anybody who wants it can get a test for free) and on unemployment benefits for everybody who has to sit at home.

    Overall, Latvian approach worked pretty well mostly because the pandemic was contained early before too many people got sick, thus it was simpler to limit and contain the spread of the virus.

  4. says

    Americans would freak and scream about “freedumb!” and “invasion of privacy!” if Taiwan’s track and trace method were implemented (i.e. monitoring everyone’s cell phones, their locations, proximity to known carriers and hot spots).

  5. sonofrojblake says

    This would work for those societies that have access to electricity and refrigeration and phones

    … and electricity, refrigeration and phone technology that works perfectly and doesn’t need any form of human intervention.

    Can you name even one such society?

    This post is quite the demonstration of privilege: nobody would miss a physics professor if they just stayed in bed for a fortnight, especially a retired physics professor.

    If my wife stayed home for two weeks, the vulnerable children she has on her worklist would probably be fine at home alone for two weeks with their abusive parents. If her best friend and all her colleagues stayed home for two weeks, you can kiss goodbye to A&E (or the ER as I believe Americans call it). My next door neighbour could stay home for two weeks, but her patients would first need each providing with a fully functional kidney dialysis machine, along with instructions on how to connect themselves to it in her absence.

    If my buddy Jim and his colleagues stayed home then do, please, make sure you don’t start a fire in your kitchen, because your house is going to burn down. My buddy Pete and his colleagues can stay home as long as you can do without the internet or phones, and my old mate Paul and all his workmates can stay home as long as you’ve got adequate supplies of bottled water and somewhere to dispose of all your shit and piss for two weeks, plus the two or more weeks it’ll take to recommission the treatment plants after they’re mothballed. My uncle will have stayed home, though, so you’ll be drinking that bottled water cold in the dark, lacking any electricity to heat it with, so that lack of internet will be somewhat academic. My good friend Alastair won’t be offshore either, so don’t count on having any gas for heating either.

    My own job isn’t as day-to-day vital as all those above, but we could shut down the chemical plant and mothball it for two weeks… None of us would have jobs to go back to, though, so we’d be an immediate drain on the economy after the restart, as would all the other people whose industries operate on a just-in-time basis and are part of an intricate and fragile supply chain. You’d notice the absence of the stuff we produce, just not for a few months… then it would REALLY start to hurt.

    In short: if this pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that there are some jobs that really are key to functioning of society, some that we can mostly do without, and others that are entirely parasitical. My friend MIke, for example, is a digital marketing consuitant. As I and my more gainfully employed friends are fond of teasing him, nobody would give two shits if he never did another day’s work in his life. He generally nods ruefully and drives home in his Maserati.

  6. invivoMark says

    In addition to all the reasons mentioned why this solution isn’t feasible, it also wouldn’t stop the pandemic. People often remain infected for longer than a month, and may be shedding virus beyond the first two weeks of infection. Even if you could successfully isolate every infected person for two weeks, some people would continue to spread the virus after the end of the quarantine.

  7. fentex says

    That’s close to what we did in New Zealand -- except we got three days warning,were told it was for four weeks (two incubation periods of the virus I think was the reasoning) and it turned out being nearly six weeks and wasn’t quite that harsh; walking, cycling for exercise was allowed and going to super markets for controlled shopping (enforced physical distancing, sanitizing etc).

    It worked.

    Though I think a nation that could be trusted to be sane and sensible could probably have done the same with enforced mask wearing and less business disruption -- only we didn’t know that then.

  8. friedfish2718 says

    Mr Singham writes: “I think Italy and South Korea did some version of this national action, and China did so for the Wuhan region, and they all achieved considerable success.”
    dailymail.co.uk (July 6, 2020): “Italy reports ‘warning signs’ of new coronavirus cases amid fears of a second wave after Rome outbreak”
    news.yahoo.com (June 22, 2020): “Coronavirus: South Korea confirms second wave of infections”
    Please Mr Singham, please, please tell us about more “considerable success”.
    As far as China goes, if you believe the CCP, I have prime swampland to sell you.
    As far as New Zealand goes: medicalxpress.com (July 6, 2020): “Victoria is undeniably in a second wave of COVID-19, and it’s time to plan for another statewide lockdown”

  9. Dunc says

    Victoria is in Australia, not New Zealand. Entirely different country, over 4,000km away.

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