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How Economists, Too, Are Taking On the Coronavirus Crisis




“You want to protect the income of furloughed pilots but make productive use of their skills,” he said. He wonders whether there is a viable model in the approach taken in China, where restaurant chains negotiated agreements with big online delivery companies to take on their idled workers temporarily.

At the same time, Mr. Greenstone worries that policymakers aren’t thinking through the current containment policy until the end, especially considering that the coronavirus will remain with us until we achieve so-called herd immunity, which in the absence of a vaccine will require 50 to 70 percent of the population’s becoming infected.

“We need to think about what would a nuanced social distancing policy look like on the way down,” Mr. Greenstone said. Even if we manage to stall the spread of Covid-19 over the summer, he said, we need to assess the benefits of relaxing social distancing, and “measure that against the likelihood of a second wave.”

Addressing the economic policy challenge is, in the end, inextricably linked to dealing with the shock to the world’s public health.

Indeed, economists hold part of the answer to a critical task in defeating the disease itself: developing, and broadly disseminating, a treatment and ultimately a vaccine. Governments and philanthropies need a way to coordinate in allocating funds to the myriad efforts by public and private labs around the world.

Patents, the standard incentive to spur innovation, will encourage private pharmaceutical companies to develop a vaccine or a treatment only if there is the prospect of a big return on investment. But that will require high prices, which will limit access. Entire countries may not be able to afford treatments, along with many of the 27 million uninsured in the United States.

Michael Kremer of Harvard, a recent Nobel laureate, has for years studied alternative incentives, from prizes to patent buyouts by governments. He has also explored arrangements in which governments or philanthropies put up money to guarantee a market for the new drug, at a given price, and can then distribute it broadly.


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Market for Chinese-made masks is a madhouse, says broker | World news




The scramble for face masks has created a “madhouse” atmosphere among Chinese manufacturers, who are making huge profits as customers around the world fight to be the first in line.

Producers of masks and respirators are demanding to be paid in full before the products leave their factories and are supplying whoever can pay the most and pay fastest, according to Michael Crotty, a textile broker based in Shanghai.

Crotty, of Golden Pacific Fashion and Design, said he had spent all of Sunday dealing with a flood of new enquiries from US states, national governments, cities, hospitals, distributors and private companies seeking to protect their employees.

“It’s just a madhouse,” he said. “Money talks. The factory knows one thing: what’s in my bank account and when did it get there? And if it gets there before the other guy then that’s who is going to get the production time.”

Factories that have quickly changed their production lines to make masks are demanding 50% payment when an order is made and the other 50% before the masks leave the factory. With scams proliferating, those are often unacceptable terms to many buyers, especially those spending taxpayers’ money.

“The factory doesn’t care,” Crotty said. “They’re getting orders from people they’ve never heard of before. It’s a really unusual circumstance to have these factories absolutely in the driver’s seat. And they’re in the driving seat not of a Volkswagen but of a Mercedes limousine.”

Wearing masks has long been common in parts of Asia to combat air pollution and the spread of disease, but until now was rare in Europe and the US.

The masks on the market range from thin cotton coverings to fine-mesh surgical masks and respirators that form a seal over the mouth and nose and have to conform to strict specifications.

Some European countries are weighing up whether to advise the public to wear masks when not at home. Last week the CDC in the US issued guidance recommending wearing a mask in public spaces. Trump has shrugged off the advice so far, saying: “This is voluntary. I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.”

French and German officials blamed the US last week for using “wild west” tactics to outbid them, but Crotty said the outbidding appeared to be an all-against-all affair.

Over the weekend authorities in Berlin withdrew a claim that the US had “seized” a shipment of 200,000 respirator masks ordered for the city’s police force, a claim that led to an accusation of “modern piracy” from Berlin’s state interior minister, Andreas Geisel.

According to Der Tagesspiegel newspaper, the police now say they were outbid while the respirators were in transit at Bangkok airport. The Berlin authorities say it is unclear where they went and who the ultimate buyer was.

Der Tagesspiegel reported that the masks were made by the US manufacturer 3M, but it has denied any involvement in the transaction.

The company has come under intense public pressure from Trump in recent days for continuing to supply masks to other countries. On Thursday he invoked the Federal Production Act, which dates back to the Korean war era and has given the administration the right to use “any and all authority” to procure the protective equipment it needs.

“We need the masks. We don’t want other people getting it,” Trump said in a Saturday briefing to reporters. “That’s why we’re instituting [the] defence production act. You could call it retaliation because that’s what it is: it’s a retaliation. If people don’t give us what we need for our people, we’re going to be very tough.”

3M issued a statement on Friday saying that cutting off supplies of protective equipment to Canada and Latin America could cause a humanitarian crisis, but Trump stepped up his attacks on the company over the weekend.

“The people that have dealt with them, have dealt successfully with many companies over the last month, And they don’t like the way 3M has treated our country. They don’t frankly like the representatives of 3M,” he said.

Last week the US authorised the importation of respirator masks from China made to a Chinese standard that is close to US specifications for the N95, which filters at least 95% of particles that are 0.3 microns or larger. (The European equivalent is the FFP2 respirator.)

At the same time, stung by widespread reports of shoddy masks imported from China, Beijing took action to regulate producers. However, Crotty said the effect of the regulation has been to cut off supply. Beijing is only giving certification to companies that have previously sold on the Chinese domestic market, but Crotty said four-fifth of the factories he dealt with manufacture solely for the export market.

“Only 20% might have these certificates, so of course they’re going to raise prices higher,” he said. But he added that masks without certification could still be exported if they were labelled for personal or commercial use only.

Crotty said everyone involved in the market was trying to improvise in unique circumstances. “None of us have ever seen anything like this. The reaction to the pandemic in the US was not very well prepared. So I think hopefully there’ll be big lessons learned through all of this, when this tapers off.”


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Fewer deaths in Veneto offer clues for fight against virus




When, at the end of February, Lombardy and Veneto recorded Italy’s first local cases of transmission of coronavirus, the two regions quickly erected road blocks, establishing Europe’s first lockdown and a precedent for the rest of the continent. 

Since then the fortunes of the two wealthy neighbours, which have some of the best-resourced health systems in Europe, have diverged.

Struck by a human catastrophe unseen in Europe outside of war, with military trucks taking away corpses from the city of Bergamo, Lombardy has a death rate of 17.6 per cent.

Nearby Veneto’s stands at 5.6 per cent. While virologists caution that the percentage death rate is closely tied to the level of testing, they also attribute the gap to other factors, such as Veneto’s reluctance to hospitalise compared with its neighbour. 

“Veneto has a very low mortality compared to the rest of Italy,” said Professor Andrea Crisanti, a leading virologist from the University of Padua, in charge of a mass testing programme across Veneto. “This shows that our approach has worked well so far.”

As of Saturday Lombardy, which has a population of 10m people, accounts for 8,656, or 56.3 per cent, of Italy’s total declared deaths from the virus of 15,362. Meanwhile Veneto, which has a population of 4.9m, has suffered 607 official deaths out of 10,824 diagnosed cases. 

Higher levels of testing and tracing in Veneto is the most widely cited explanation for why the region has managed to control its outbreak more effectively than its neighbours. 

Editor’s note

The Financial Times is making key coronavirus coverage free to read to help everyone stay informed. Find the latest here.

Luca Zaia, governor of Veneto, was the first regional head in Italy to devise a widespread testing programme that involves drive-through swabs done in cars as well as tests in medical centres.

This went beyond World Health Organization guidance, which advises to test and trace suspected cases. On the advice of the region’s scientists, Veneto has to date conducted 133,289 tests as of Saturday, the second-highest in Italy after the 141,877 of Lombardy in spite of having half of its population.

Yet experts say testing is not the only reason for the lower death rate.

Venetian doctors also cite the region’s expertise in infectious disease, something they trace back to its pioneering history dealing with viruses arriving in its port from the east. The word quarantine derives from quarantena, the Venetian word for “40 days”, or the amount of time ships arriving from plague-ridden destinations were isolated.

For Giorgio Palù, one of Europe’s leading virologists, and scientific adviser to the governor of Veneto, a critical factor has been the number of diagnosed patients taken into hospital.

The number of diagnosed patients who were taken in hospitals for clinical treatment at the start of the outbreak was about 65 per cent in Lombardy, Prof Palù said.

This compares with 20 per cent in Veneto, where the majority were told to stay at home unless urgent care was required.

“There were different instructions given to the sick by the different regional health authorities,” he said. “Yes, there has been more testing in Veneto but people were kept at home and not taken into hospitals. The more patients you admit to the hospital, the more cases you get. You create the outbreak as at the start nobody was taking care of sampling the doctors or nurses, [so] you were taking home the infection.”

His observation comes as more than 60 Italian doctors and health workers have died, the majority of these in Lombardy. A group of doctors from the Papa Giovanni XXIII hospital in Bergamo warned last month that hospitals had become the main source of transmission of Covid-19 infections, and urged more patients to be treated at home.

Doctors and nurses on the frontline of the fight against coronavirus in Rome, Bergamo and Brescia
Doctors and nurses on the frontline of the fight against coronavirus in Rome, Bergamo and Brescia © Domenico Stinellis/Antonio Calanni/Luca Bruno/AP

“We are learning that hospitals might be the main Covid-19 carriers,” they wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine. “They are rapidly populated by infected patients, facilitating transmission to uninfected patients.”

The Veneto region has a large network of smaller health centres, which have been used to diagnose and treat patients in ways that have kept them out of large hospitals, said Prof Palù.

The fact that Lombardy has a greater proportion of private hospitals than Veneto also contributed to more Covid-19 patients ending up in hospitals, he argued. The Lombardy administration was also under political pressure, Prof Palù added. 

“In Lombardy there were too many admissions from the primary side, where the triage was done. The Italian prime minister at the start criticised the hospitals in Lombardy, and it seems they responded by wanting to show they were treating people, not telling them to stay at home.”

Officials in Lombardy also said Rome should have done more. “I put my mask on on the television, and they insulted me and told me that I undermined Italy’s credibility,” said Lombardy’s governor Attilio Fontana this week. “Perhaps I should have been tougher in opposing the [central] government.” Late last month, Lombardy established teams of medics to monitor at home patients who had been discharged from hospital. 

The mood in both regions is still sombre. “Have we committed errors? Of course we have,” said Giulio Gallera, Lombardy’s head of welfare last week. “We have always given our best to offer the many people who arrived in our hospitals the necessary care . . . we have done the best we could.”


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