There has been a lot of talk in the media about the idea that the United States should have done a total lockdown by around March 7, and that doing so would have “crushed the curve” and saved 36000 lives in NYC for openers.
The one big hooker in this kind of thinking is that no geographically large country has completely locked down everything. Authoritarian China walled off Wuhan and I believe most of Hubei province, although there were a few hours notice for people to escape. And China has a unary government, not federal like ours.
Instead, we left most decisions about lockdowns to the states (as part of federalism) and sometimes localities. It was decentralized. This more or less corresponds to the EU's letting each component country act independently (but stopping free movement). Even Australia, with about the same land mass as the US, and Canada allowed considerable provincial and state discretion (although they were stricter than we were). New Zealand is different, because it is geographically small and water-surrounded. Same with Taiwan and South Korea.
(CNBC video July 8).
A true lockdown, aiming to prevent the taking advantage of service workers who are more likely not to be white, would have amounted to martial law, close to what happened in China. In the effort to reduce unnecessary activity, even “gratuitous” web activity and social media self-publishing might be stopped. This would be a war effort. And the term "shelter in place" really suggests gross contamination outside (like radiation).
It’s interesting that CDC had suggested on Feb. 25 that Americans could find their lives “severely disrupted” before a single official death had been recorded (Feb. 29, later backed down to Feb. 6), and even before community spread in the US had been verified (Feb 26).
By March 7 there were some cases, including a cluster in the NYC suburbs, but still not a large total. By March 16 (when many things were closed) they were rising exponentially and as were hospitalizations and then deaths.
The nature of the threat, with the concept of “curve flattening”, is deceptive. It is more that the virus, transmitted casually, can cause unpredictable long term damage to so many people who survive it, as well as the death rates that spiral just because of the sheer volume of exponential spread.
Update: July 15.
John Barry in the New York Times warns us we need another April-style (at least) lockdown.