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

by Kenoubi2 min read10th May 202023 comments


Personal Blog

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?

Personal Blog