President Trump has announced his hopes to get America “back to work” by Easter, despite public health officials’ warnings. Liam Glen writes on why containing the coronavirus pandemic must come before short-term economic concerns.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the associated enforcement of social distancing have presented personal and economic challenges to people around the world. And the situation is only expected to get worse, even for those who do not catch the virus.
As people stay at home, businesses lose revenue and lay off workers. International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva predicts a recession on the level of the 2008 financial crisis, while Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard warns that the US unemployment rate could reach 30 percent.
People are understandably anxious to know when everything will return to normal. Some are even willing to rush the process. President Donald Trump has announced his hope to relax federal guidelines and get Americans “back to work” by Easter on April 12.
This mirrors a growing view on the American right that shutting down the country to stop the spread of coronavirus is worse than simply letting it run its course – as the saying goes, the cure is worse than the disease.
Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has said that vulnerable Americans should “take a chance” rather than let “the whole country be sacrificed.” Conservative intellectuals Bill Bennett and Seth Leibsohn downplay the virus’s 1.2 percent fatality rate compared to the risks of continued isolation.
According to this point of view, death is just a part of life. The flu also kills people, but we do not make everyone stay at home because of it. Similarly, we continue allowing cars on the road despite the high number of fatalities from automobile accidents. Meanwhile, an oncoming recession could ruin people’s livelihoods and cause deaths in its own right.
As commentator Kevin D. Williamson points out, much of this debate is due to uncertainty. Neither epidemiologists nor economists have enough data to determine the best course of action. However, leading public health officials are highly skeptical of Trump’s Easter deadline. Putting the country “back to work” prematurely could lead to an outbreak that would cause both humanitarian and economic disaster.
No matter what happens, the coming months will be difficult. But when it comes to matters of health, our greatest hope comes from listening to expert advice, not half-baked suggestions from pundits and politicians.
Coronavirus’s death rate is a complicated matter. The statistic is typically measured based on the percentage of people diagnosed with the disease who die from it. However, many people who catch COVID-19 and have mild symptoms are never diagnosed with it, meaning that the recorded death rate is higher than the reality. In addition, any individual’s chance of survival depends on a variety of specific health factors, along with the quality of care they receive.
Estimates of the death rate in countries like the US tend to hover around 1 percent, making it at least ten times worse than the seasonal flu. COVID-19 is most dangerous for those over 65, but young people are not entirely safe, especially if they have preexisting conditions. In the US, there has already been one recorded death of someone under 18. In addition, while most patients make a full recovery, those who survive can still suffer lasting damage from acute respiratory distress syndrome.
While 1 percent may seem low, it is huge when applied across the entire population. For reference the CDC measures the annual mortality rate for all causes of death in America at 0.8638 percent.
Without social distancing and other measures to stop the spread of the virus, between tens of thousands and millions of people could die preventable deaths. COVID-19 will become especially dangerous if we fail to flatten the curve. If there are too many cases at once, hospitals will run out of resources to deal with everyone who needs treatment, and the risks will grow even more dire.
Notably, Italy has the highest reported COVID-19 death rate in the world, approaching 10 percent. There are numerous possible reasons for this, but a leading one is the overcrowded healthcare system.
Keeping infection rates to an absolute minimum is thus a national priority, especially given the dubious economic benefits of lifting restrictions.
Those who call for businesses to reopen their doors base their arguments on the false assumptions that government restrictions are the only thing holding the economy back. Everyone who does not die or get hospitalized, this thinking implies, will be able to return to their life just as it was before the pandemic.
In truth, however, it is hard to imagine any sort of normal life in the midst of a public health crisis of this proportion. Widespread infections and overcrowded healthcare systems will put many people out of work, while creating a culture of paranoia among everyone else.
A government simply doing nothing in the face of a pandemic is so rare that it is difficult to predict the consequences with any accuracy. But it could easily evolve into an unmitigated disaster.
If Trump relaxes federal guidelines, it would lead to a patchwork system where rules vary wildly across states and municipalities – for the most part, Democratic officials would opt for strict provisions, while many Republicans would follow the president’s lead.
Many people would continue voluntary social distancing, so industries like restaurants and airlines would still face huge losses. But voluntary measures would hardly be enough to stop the virus. As cases like students travelling to party over spring break demonstrate, there is a fraction of the population that will engage in reckless action.
Meanwhile, people who adopt responsible practices cannot guarantee that their employers will do the same. Businesspeople like former Wells Fargo CEO Dick Kovacevich have expressed the belief that it is best to send employees back to their workplaces, even if it means that some may die.
Economists like former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke warn that this could very well create a second Great Depression. If economic growth is stalled for a short period while the virus is contained, it will at least be able to recover afterwards. But if restrictions are lifted too early, the pandemic will last much longer, leading to an extended economic slump.
Such a situation would be a nightmare for workers who must worry about both keeping themselves safe from the virus and keeping their job. Even the investors and CEOs who value their own wealth over others’ lives are unlikely to come out in a good position as the outbreak causes the market to fall even further.
One need only look at the rest of the world to see the folly of disregarding coronavirus. As conservative commentator John McCormack has put it, an authoritarian regime like the Chinese government, which places its economic power above all else, would not shut itself down over COVID-19 if such a cure truly was worse than the disease.
Public health experts are unsure of the best path forward. The virus has repeatedly thwarted our expectations, making it a hopeless endeavor to develop long-term plans. Instead, many governments have adopted a wait-and-see approach of imposing strict measures now with the hope of loosening them in the near future. However, if this is done too soon – as is the case with Trump’s plan to open the country on Easter – it could lead to a massive spike in cases.
The most pessimistic predictions say that people will have to stick to their homes until a vaccine comes, which will not be until 2021 at the absolute earliest. Critics rightfully point out that this would be an intolerable situation. But it would be even worse to let the virus continue its spread.
In the meantime, there exists hope that the US can switch to a model similar to South Korea’s, where widespread testing ensures that people who test positive for the virus are quarantined while everyone else can go about their day-to-day life.
Whether this is possible, however, will depend on a wide number of factors. A timeline for transferring back to normal life will follow on the rulings of public health officials, not the whims of the White House.
There is no doubt that people will suffer financially in the meantime, but the government does not have to sit by and let it happen. Already there is an agreement for a $2 trillion economic stimulus package to prevent collapse. If necessary, there is no reason why there could not be a follow-up package. Most budget hawks have even accepted this massive expenditure as better than any alternative.
Amid such uncertainty, there is a risk that even expert predictions may be wrong. But they are still by far our best chance of getting through this. If it turns out that we are overreacting to what is in fact a mild threat, we will surely curse ourselves for putting such excessive measures in place. But if we underreact to this crisis, the cost could be unimaginably worse.
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