This article looks at the Covid-19 problem purely from a statistical-economic perspective. However, the views of the medical, immunology and epidemiology experts are more vital here.
I watched a video in one of my WhatsApp groups where some children were playing in a playground and a police car came forth and made an announcement asking everyone to vacate the playground and return home. Of course, this stems from the Movement Control Order (MCO) placed by the government on the public, meant to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus that has now become pandemic worldwide. Accordingly, many now work from home, most shops and businesses closed, restaurants sell only takeaways, all forms of public gathering including religious gatherings like congregational prayers cancelled or prohibited. These are commendable actions though, directed towards containing the spread of the virus from infecting more people. We salute our healthcare system – the Ministry of Health, doctors, nurses and all its supporting staff, who are working tirelessly, many of whom putting much overtime, placing themselves in danger to combat this virus.
The public, on the other hand, have resorted to hoarding necessities like food items and toiletries in order to go through this period of restricted movement by staying at home mostly.
However, as an economist, something is bothering me. Are we really doing the right thing to combat this novel coronavirus? Let’s look at the statistics. A website recently provided these numbers as the total cases for the whole world (ncov2019.live at 9.30pm 19-3-2020) – 221,117 total confirmed cases, 8,976 total deceased, 6,602 total serious, 84,957 total recovered. Accordingly, the remainder i.e. 120,582 should be total not serious (at that point in time). Hence out of the total infected by the virus, 15,578 became seriously ill or died from it. This represents about 7% of the total confirmed cases. While this may seem a small percentage, the real issue with this virus is that it is highly contagious and a large number of those who contract the virus fall ill at the same time. This puts undue pressure on the healthcare system and its personnel, potentially breaching the system’s Capacity Threshold.
Please see the Venn diagram below.
The 7% who succumbed to the virus are represented by V, i.e. the intersection between C, those who contracted the virus and R, the High-Risk individuals in the population. Low Risk individuals include children, young adults and healthy adults. These individuals are said to show mild or even no symptoms at all. If they contract the virus they do recover fairly well. Therefore, the statistics seem to suggest that all the actions we take to combat this virus – screenings, quarantine, restricted movements, social distancing, immigration restrictions, business closures etc. – are all actually meant to protect the High-Risk individuals from contracting this virus. If that is the case, shouldn’t the healthcare system focus primarily on the High-Risk individuals, R in combating this outbreak?
However, what we are doing is that we are focusing on the entire population P, with special focus on those who have contracted the virus, i.e. C. Entire population by imposing Movement Control Order on them, i.e. practically a lockdown, where businesses have come almost to a standstill and all outside group activities being stopped. The entire population is requested to do Social Distancing, movements restricted, children being not allowed to be in playground etc. Stocking and hoarding provisions by the public have made shelves in the supermarkets empty. Additionally, those who have contracted or suspected of possibly having contracted the virus are asked to go to nearby clinics or hospitals for a screening. This is where, in my opinion, an undue stress on the healthcare system and staff emerges from. Imagine the amount of time, materials and equipment needed to screen them one by one. If found positive with the virus, they will be quarantined for 14 days or so. Consider the cost for implementing this and the stress it will bring about on doctors, nurses and other supporting staff; when more than 80% of them will ultimately ward off the infection on their own or recover easily because they are not from the high-risk group. The statistics show that 93% of the infected would recover or show no serious illness. Malaysian statistics show that 96.8% will recover, with the death rate converging to 1.6%.
How to Address the Problem
The real issue here is the capacity of the hospitals. The number of infected people who actually fall seriously ill is small (mostly the elderly), but the spread happens fast and that’s why the hospital’s capacity threshold is breached. So, the MCO is needed to slow down the spread. Note that the virus spreads leaving from nose and mouth of the infected person through coughing, sneezing etc., in droplets.
The statistics therefore suggest to the following method to mitigate the outbreak:
1. Immediately increase hospital capacity – beds, ventilators, staff (call back retired doctors and nurses) etc., since this is the real issue – increase fiscal expenditure.
2. Only those having symptoms need to be tested and only those with severe illness need to be hospitalized. Not serious ones recuperate at home but must wear mask all the time, inside or outside home. But can go to work.
3. Full lockdown only for the elderly and highly vulnerable. They must remain indoors wearing mask always and practice hygiene particularly washing hands regularly.
4. Compulsory masks for all who are in the outdoors (because the virus leaves the body mostly through nose and mouth).
Hence other than those who are seriously ill and admitted into the hospital, the rest of the people should be allowed to go about their economic activities.
However, now the effect of a nationwide lockdown is a complete wreck of the economy. It will destroy about 10% of GDP, where SMEs can go bust with bankruptcies, foreclosures, serious unemployment, rising crime levels etc. Many businesses will be permanently lost. What we are seeing now is only the tip of the tip of the iceberg. Hope I am wrong.
So, in our opinion, we should focus more on the High-Risk group, R. Imagine how the situation will be if we were to require this group to wash their hands frequently, practice social distancing by self-quarantining themselves at home, until this virus comes under control. If this were done, this virus may not be even visible in society. The rest who contracted it will just swat if off on their own or recover from it like recovering from a normal flu or cold. Also, isn’t it “good” for the low risk group like children, young adults and healthy adults to contract this virus early in life so that their bodies get to “know” this virus and thereby easily ward it off in the future in case they contract it again?
Overall, I think if we focus on the High-Risk individuals, a lot of stress on the healthcare system and personnel could be removed, a lot of funds saved, while the economy can function practically without being affected much. Therefore, in our opinion, emphasizing on Social Distancing by the High-Risk individuals alone can efficiently and economically mitigate the COVID-19.
Disclaimer: This article is an economist’s view based purely on the nature of the virus and the observed statistics. However, the views of medical experts take precedence. Once the authorities have taken their actions we must follow that in solidarity so that the problem can be addressed effectively. Hence the article is written not to question the government’s actions and policies in addressing the COVID-19 outbreak but rather as an economist’s view on how the health of the people and the economy could be saved at the same time.
 Not everyone like what happened to those who attended the Tabligh Ijtima’.