Bolivia’s total quarantine makes me question what is the long-term plan

Bolivia started a “total quarantine” today. No public or private automobiles are allowed on the road if not authorized. People between the ages of 18 and 65 are only allowed to go out one day per week to buy food between the hours of 7 and 12 am. The day of the week that people are allowed to go buy food is determined by the last digit of their ID card. People who are caught on the street when it isn’t their designated day of the week are arrested and held for 8 hours and also forced to pay a fine of 1000 bolivianos ($144). People under the age of 18 or older than 65 are never allowed to leave their homes, but the military is supposed to help people older than 65 get food.

It seems that Bolivia has little capacity to test or treat the coronavirus, so the only solution is to completely lock down the country. It is worth reading the decree issued by the Bolivian government about these new quarantine rules.

What is amazing is the number of things that aren’t covered by the decree. It doesn’t say what happens to people who don’t have the money to pay the 1000 boliviano fine. It makes no provision for foreigners who don’t have a “carnet de identidad”–presumably they will be allowed to use the last number of their passport, but it doesn’t specify that. It doesn’t say what happens to people who aren’t carrying a national ID card when stopped by the police, or those who don’t own one, which is a problem, especially in rural and indigenous areas. It assumes that everyone who is under the age of 18 has someone in their family who can buy groceries for them. It doesn’t say anything about the homeless, who presumably aren’t allowed to be on the street. It assumes that rural people can make it all the way to market and back home in 5 hours, which isn’t possible in many rural places, especially when only authorized vehicles are allowed to be on the roads.

Maybe all of these problems are being dealt with, but they aren’t included in the decree. If I can spot all these problems in 5 minutes of reading the decree, then I have to wonder how well the government planned its “total quarantine”. Most likely the military and police will use their discretion for how to deal with these problems, which means the application will be arbitrary and can lead to abuse.

I wonder how long any democratic society will accept this much restriction on people’s personal lives. If the state isn’t extremely organized in procuring food and other essential supplies, people are eventually going to start rebelling against these restrictions, especially when people start running out of savings.

I also have to wonder what is the strategy behind the quarantine, because the coronavirus is going to have outbreaks when the quarantine is lifted. I really doubt that any country in the world will have the capacity to detain every appearance of the virus once schools and businesses reopen. The experts say that it will be 1 to 2 years before we have a vaccine and it will be another year before everyone on the planet gets vaccinated, so we are talking about 2 to 3 years of quarantines every time the virus appears. Shutting down the economy every time there is a new outbreak for the next 2-3 years doesn’t seem like a very viable plan.

I understand the short term goal of trying to flatten the curve of infections so that the medical system in each country is not overrun. The current quarantines are necessary to give each country the time to ramp up production of face masks, gloves, protective gear, ventilators, anti-malarial drugs, etc. and build temporary hospitals to deal with the sick. Having controlled outbreaks that don’t overwhelm the medical system can dramatically reduce the fatality rate of the virus. However, most of the world currently imports these essential medical supplies from China, and China won’t have excess medical supplies to export for quite a while. Each country will have to start producing its own supplies and countries like Bolivia that don’t have much industrial capacity to fabricate them will simply be out of luck, until China is ready to start exporting again.

The Spanish Flu killed 20 million people in 1918-20, so we have some idea what can happen if we make no efforts to control the coronavirus. The initial reports found that the coronavirus killed 3.4% of those infected, but only those with severe symptoms were counted at first. The true fatality rate is probably between 1% and 2%, and with adequate treatment it is probably lower than 0.5%.

The question that we have to ask is what percentage of the population will die if we are in a continual cycle of starting and stopping quarantines for the next 2 to 3 years until we can get everyone vaccinated. It is highly likely that the world will experience a global depression similar to the 1930s if countries are continually going in and out of quarantine. This isn’t a problem if the whole world adopts a state socialist model where the government is in charge of providing the basic necessities to all people, but that kind of government currently only exists in a few places in the world like Cuba and North Korea. Millions of people are likely to die before every government regards it as their responsibility to make sure that every person is fed, clothed, sheltered and has basic services like electricity, water and medical care. Some places will need revolutions to make it happen and it will likely never happen in failed states like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some of the poorer countries in places like Africa will likely not have the resources to provide for all their citizens in a global depression.

Preventing sizeable percentages of the global population from attending school, work, religious services, social gatherings and political meetings will also have huge consequences for human society. Needless to say, the current “total quarantine” in Bolivia raises the specter of fascism. It isn’t hard to see how elections can be cancelled, civil liberties annulled, and protesters can be arrested in the name of public safety. None of those things have happened so far in Bolivia, but the current Áñez administration, which wasn’t elected by the people, will have the perfect excuse to postpone the elections that are scheduled to take place in May if the current quarantine doesn’t contain the coronavirus.

Given the research showing that death rates spike during economic recessions, it is likely that more than 0.5% of the world’s population will die if the world tries to quarantine the coronavirus for the next 2 to 3 years and it provokes a global depression with 20% to 30% unemployment rates.

Once the world has built enough field hospitals and is producing the necessary medical supplies, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to develop a plan to do controlled exposures of those people who have lower risk rates, and try to isolate those who are at the highest risk rates. If 70% of the population can develop resistance to the coronavirus, then the chance of exposure is much lower for people such as the elderly and smokers who are at higher risk. Unfortunately, I don’t know if it is possible to get to 70% resistance without also exposing the high-risk population at the same time.

However, even if 0.5% of the world’s population dies due to the coronavirus, that might be better than the alternative. Maybe we will figure out how to contain the coronavirus and be able to use techniques like South Korea to quickly catch it when it appears. Maybe the experiments with existing drugs like antimalarials will work, and we won’t have to face these awful choices. We can hope for the best for now, but we need to be prepared to talk honestly about the difficult choices that we face if the worst occurs.

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