Jun 4, 2020 - Health

Americans will be forced to weigh personal coronavirus risk as states reopen

Illustration of a hand reaching to for a handshake, with a gloved hand pulling back

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The U.S. is about to embark upon the most momentous social experiment in living memory: What happens when you take laissez-faire economic principles and apply them to public health?

Why it matters: When millions of people make their own individual risk/reward calculations, the result is superior to top-down decision-making by the government. That's the central tenet of capitalism — but you'd be hard-pressed to find any epidemiologists making the same argument.

By the numbers: America continues to see tens of thousands of new coronavirus cases every day. Very few of them result in a comprehensive contact-tracing review. Given the amount of virus in the population, there's a non-negligible probability that any of us could be unknowingly infectious today.

  • Americans react to this uncertainty in line with their own idiosyncratic risk appetite. Younger folks, in particular, tend to be happier making riskier decisions, as do people like undercover police officers.
  • As businesses reopen, decisions about things like whether to step into a crowded elevator will be made on a bottom-up rather than a top-down basis. Some people will be willing; others won't. (Both sides will view the other group as outliers.)

Between the lines: Governors can't simply decree that business is back to usual. So long as a significant proportion of society is unwilling to resume economic activity, employment and GDP will remain depressed.

The bottom line: Countries with more forceful and effective government responses have been able to bring the rate of infection down to a level at which most citizens can reasonably feel safe from the disease. That's not going to happen in the U.S. — and it's not going to happen in places like Brazil, India, or Mexico, either.

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