Public Signaling and Public Health

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May 12, 2020 11:58 a.m.

President Trump has repeatedly conflated limiting air travel from China to avoiding “Chinatowns” in the United States. But recent articles note something perhaps counterintuitive about the experience of New York City. Both historic Chinatown in Lower Manhattan (see here) and at least one other Queens neighborhood (see here) with a high concentration of immigrants from Asia have among the lowest COVID19 infection rates. The reasons are intuitive: these communities were focused on COVID early and they’re part of a cultural space in which the experience of SARS in 2003 is very strong. Mask wearing among Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants started in New York City two or three weeks before the city locked down.

TPM Reader JGi thin draws what I think is the most important lesson we can draw …

In evaluating the US response to Covid19, people may want to dismiss the China/Taiwan/South Korea/New Zealand responses as not pertaining to conditions in the US. But there’s a great treatment/control story about what could have been accomplished in the US: the contrast between 2 neighborhoods in Queens of similar socio-economic status, housing stock, etc: Corona vs. Flushing. Flushing: because of early warnings from relatives in China, which were taken seriously, stores closed and the denizens masked up. Corona, well, we know. Consequences: reported cases: Corona (3.5% of the population); Flushing (1.3%), acc. to the NYT zipcode tracker. And the Flushing result was obtained solely through self-help. Imagine what could have been achieved with some official backing.

These aren’t controlled studies. They’re just a few examples. But public health is a game of percentages, not binary choices or either/ors. A few things that individually reduce transmission by 10% or 20% can combine to account for significantly different outcomes. Public signaling plays a big part in shaping these outcomes.

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