Pandemic dashboard in the U.S. and around the world; A Marshall Plan for the world; Yes, lockdowns were good; My arguments to an unvaccinated friend

By Whitney Tilson

Tuesday, June 1, 2021
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I continue to closely follow the pandemic, sending lengthy e-mails to my coronavirus e-mail list roughly once a week. If you’d like to receive them, simply send a blank e-mail to: [email protected].

Below are excerpts from the e-mail I sent on Sunday. You can read the full e-mail here.


1) Though the pace of vaccinations has slowed dramatically (source)…

… The U.S. has now reached the point where half of its population has received at least one dose and just over 40% is now fully vaccinated, though there are wide variations by state (source):

Overall, however, the U.S. is doing very well, as cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to fall rapidly (source):

Here’s a related New York Times op ed: The U.S. May Never Hit the Herd Immunity Threshold. That’s OK.

2) Around the world, the story is mixed – much worse than the U.S., though things are clearly trending in the right direction (though whether this will continue is open to debate – here’s a pessimistic NYT op ed: COVID’s Deadliest Phase May Be Here Soon). Here are charts of worldwide cases and deaths (source):

Here are charts of cases and deaths in major countries and regions, which show huge case declines in the U.S., Europe, and India, while Brazil and South America remain elevated, with declining deaths in all areas (source):

Here are two related articles about this from the Wall Street Journal: COVID’s Next Challenge: The Growing Divide Between Rich and Poor Economies and Why a Grand Plan to Vaccinate the World Against COVID Unraveled.

3) In light of what’s going on around the world, I wholeheartedly agree with this powerful and spot-on essay by my friend, NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway: Calling Marshall.

Here’s another friend, Nick Kristof, with a similar argument in his NYT column: Vaccinate the World! The Best Investment Ever.

4) This is a very important article, which rebuts the view that lockdowns either didn’t work or weren’t worth the economic harm: Yes, lockdowns were good. Excerpt:

There is copious evidence that lockdowns reduced transmission of the coronavirus. Some types of social distancing restrictions are more effective than others, and some sub-populations benefit more than others, but overall, lockdowns did limit the spread and saved lives.

That’s hardly a surprising result. The bigger question is, what did lockdown do to the economy? Most people make the natural assumption that lockdown hurts the economy – if you ban people from going out to restaurants, that stops people from spending money on restaurants, right? Obviously. Many economists made this assumption when they tried to model pandemic policy. In fact, some people go so far as to blame all the economic costs of the pandemic on lockdowns:

If you think something seems fishy about that claim, you’re right. The fact is, even without lockdowns, plenty of people will avoid restaurants and other crowded spaces during a pandemic simply out of fear of catching the virus. And that will hurt the economy.

And lo and behold, when we look at evidence, we find that lockdowns accounted for only a small percent of the economic slowdown…

The biggest economic destroyer by far was not government policy; it was fear of COVID.

In fact, states that didn’t issue stay-at-home orders in the spring of 2020 saw just about the same amount of economic devastation as states that did issue those orders…

The other piece of evidence that lockdown didn’t hurt the economy much is the timing. For example, people stopped going to restaurants well before lockdowns were implemented. Meanwhile, a recent analysis by Chetty et al. looked at very detailed data on business activity and employment and found that “State-ordered reopenings of economies had small impacts on spending and employment”…

You can’t even see the effect of lockdowns at all! It’s all just fear of the virus itself.

How did lockdowns save lives without hurting the economy?

At this point you may be scratching your head (or, if you’re a lockdown hater, seething with rage). How the heck could lockdowns have a big effect on the transmission of the virus, but only a small effect on the economy? Shouldn’t the tradeoff basically be one for one? Doesn’t every infection you stop mean one less meal in a restaurant, one less drink at the bar, one less trip to the store, etc.?

Well, no. That’s not how it works. As the evidence above shows, it’s fear of the virus that was the big economic killer. And if fear is proportional to actual infection rates, then by suppressing the virus, lockdowns reduced fear.

5) I only know one person who is refusing to be vaccinated. He argues:

a) the vaccine CERTAINLY protects from COVID, and b) the side effects of the vaccine in the first few days have been remarkably low (out-performance, frankly).

That said, c) the MEDIUM-TERM (5-15) year effects of the vaccine are not known.

So, for someone like me, who has roughly ZERO risk of covid having a serious impact, even if contracted, I simply feel that my OWN / PERSONAL risk from COVID is LOWER than that of the vaccine. If I had a heart condition or high blood pressure, you’d better believe I would be first in line to do it, as I do ALL other vaccines. I will do this one at the right time too.

Here was my very blunt reply (which really pissed him off):

I think you’re severely mis-assessing the odds in three key ways:

1) You need to do some more research on this: “for someone like me, who has roughly ZERO risk of covid having a serious impact, even if contracted”. Ask [our mutual friend] about the healthy 53-year-old in his building who died of COVID a year ago. You are not a strapping 20-year old – you’re in your mid-50s, which is starting to get into the risk zone, and you just had major surgery. You’re not high risk for serious illness/death – but you’re not super low risk either.

Then, Google “Long COVID” – it’s a VERY REAL thing, and very scary. My sister got COVID a month ago and was laid up in bed for nine days – bad enough – but I’m really worried that there might be long-term, as-yet-not-well-understood consequences like cognitive issues, something like chronic fatigue symptom, etc. In short, if you want to worry about medium- to long-term issues, there’s 100x more evidence for Long COVID than anything resulting from vaccines.

2) While the specific COVID mRNA vaccines are new and have no medium- or long-term track record, mRNA vaccines in general have been around for a long time and my understanding is that they have an excellent safety record.

3) This isn’t just about you. By not getting vaccinated, you and others like you, collectively, are prolonging this pandemic, which hurts our country – and you, specifically, are greatly increasing the chances that you get the virus and, likely unknowingly, pass it along to others. As David Brooks wrote in Our Pathetic Herd Immunity Failure. Here’s the key part:

This week my Times colleague Apoorva Mandavilli reported that experts now believe that America will not achieve herd immunity anytime soon. Instead of being largely beaten, this disease could linger, as a more manageable threat, for generations. A major reason is that about 30% of the U.S. population is reluctant to get vaccinated.

We’re not asking you to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima; we’re asking you to walk into a damn CVS.

I followed up that e-mail with this tongue-in-cheek one: “If this doesn’t persuade you to get vaccinated, nothing will!”

P.S. Here’s a related article: Meet the Four Kinds of People Holding Us Back From Full Vaccination.

Best regards,

Whitney

Whitney Tilson
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About Whitney Tilson

Prior to creating Empire Financial Research, Whitney Tilson founded and ran Kase Capital Management, which managed three value-oriented hedge funds and two mutual funds. Starting out of his bedroom with only $1 million, Tilson grew assets under management to more than $200 million.

Tilson graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College with a bachelor’s degree in government in 1989. After college, he helped Wendy Kopp launch Teach for America and then spent two years as a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group. He earned his MBA from Harvard Business School in 1994, where he graduated in the top 5% of his class and was named a Baker Scholar.

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