Why COVID-19 prevention at the margin might be bad for most LWers

I’m sur­prised and con­fused that no one else seems to be say­ing this, but I think the most ex­treme mea­sures LWers have been talk­ing about are much more likely to harm than help the world, and prob­a­bly those LWers them­selves. Th­ese are things like us­ing cop­per tape on fre­quently touched sur­faces or leav­ing pack­ages out­doors for 2 days. Note that I’m not just say­ing these aren’t worth it on net; I think do­ing them is ac­tively harm­ful and you should stop.

EDITED: A num­ber of peo­ple have pointed out con­cerns that even in those whose acute ill­ness is not se­vere, there may be sig­nifi­cant long-term nega­tive health effects. I definitely wasn’t ad­e­quately ac­count­ing for that. I’m not thrilled about the qual­ity of ev­i­dence for this one way or the other, but that’s per­haps to be ex­pected for such a new dis­ease. (There’s no real way to know how COVID-19 sur­vivors will be do­ing a year later, yet.) If these effects are much more com­mon than death in the young and healthy, that would be a strong ar­gu­ment against my first point be­low, and against the over­all con­clu­sion of in­fec­tion be­ing benefi­cial.

I’ve ed­ited the ti­tle slightly to ac­count for these. I still think the rest of these points would point to­wards in­fec­tion be­ing less bad than oth­er­wise, and that I’ve seen a strik­ing lack of peo­ple com­ment­ing on the fact that some fac­tors point in that di­rec­tion. From this point on I’ve left the post as is.

Here are my as­sump­tions (I think these are pretty con­sen­sus, not ex­treme weird views):

  • COVID-19 isn’t that bad for the vast ma­jor­ity of young and oth­er­wise healthy peo­ple (no worse than a bad flu).

  • COVID-19 is pretty bad for the el­derly and peo­ple with other se­ri­ous chronic con­di­tions, es­pe­cially very el­derly peo­ple and el­derly peo­ple with other con­di­tions (dou­ble digit mor­tal­ity rate).

  • Se­vere cases are not only less likely in the young and oth­er­wise healthy, they have a much bet­ter prog­no­sis when they do oc­cur.

  • Most LWers are young, oth­er­wise healthy, and not liv­ing with any­one for whom those things aren’t true.

  • Viral load mat­ters, and ini­tial ex­po­sure amount sub­stan­tially af­fects viral load.

  • Marginal pre­ven­tion efforts dis­pro­por­tionately pre­vent low-quan­tity ex­po­sure (sur­face ex­po­sures, for ex­am­ple, even if pos­si­ble, are prob­a­bly low-dose).

  • Most peo­ple who re­cover from COVID-19 have a rea­son­able amount of im­mu­nity (let’s say on av­er­age equiv­a­lent to 6 months of full im­mu­nity, though I as­sume it varies from per­son to per­son).

  • There is lit­tle rea­son to ap­ply lock­down poli­cies to im­mune peo­ple. The only rea­son we’re cur­rently do­ing so is that there aren’t enough of them and there isn’t enough test­ing.

  • Peo­ple who are im­mune are es­pe­cially valuable in jobs where there is no choice but to in­ter­act with vuln­er­a­ble pop­u­la­tions (health­care work­ers and any­one work­ing in a re­tire­ment home, for ex­am­ple).

  • It will be at least 9 months un­til a safe, effec­tive vac­cine is widely available.

  • Lock­down for 9 months or longer would be eco­nom­i­cally catas­trophic and is poli­ti­cally im­pos­si­ble. There will be strong, re­lentless poli­ti­cal pres­sure to re­lease lock­down at any time that the lo­cal situ­a­tion isn’t an enor­mous health catas­tro­phe.

Con­clu­sion: for peo­ple who are at low risk from COVID-19, and with low risk of spread­ing it to vuln­er­a­ble pop­u­la­tions (most LWers), and who are likely to be ex­posed to COVID-19 be­fore be­ing vac­ci­nated against it any­way, hav­ing the dis­ease as soon and in as safe a man­ner as pos­si­ble so as to be­come im­mune to it would al­low them to act as fire­walls to­wards the dis­ease and help vuln­er­a­ble pop­u­la­tions han­dle their cur­rent in­abil­ity to safely in­ter­act with any­one who might in­fect them. The marginal effort to pre­vent one­self from get­ting COVID-19 isn’t very effec­tive, and to the ex­tent that it is, pro­tects one from get­ting the dis­ease in a way that is prob­a­bly safer than other ways of get­ting it.

I feel like the kid in The Em­peror’s New Clothes. Am I miss­ing some­thing?