And so it is with the coronavirus pandemic and the economic calamity it has caused.
While it is true that thousands of lives were lost unnecessarily because we were unprepared and reacted too slowly and timidly, it is also worth remembering that millions more lives were saved by what we did do, individually and collectively.
Similarly, while economic rescue has been flawed and the rollout had its glitches, we should also acknowledge that, two months on, financial markets have stabilized and rebounded, millions of businesses have been rescued and hundreds of millions of households have received a lifeline in the form of tax rebates, unemployment checks and loan extensions.
And while our incompetent and divisive president failed the leadership test, governors, mayors and dedicated public servants have admirably stepped into the breach, along with countless businesses, nonprofits, front line workers and enterprising volunteers.
So as we get about the business of reopening the economy and preparing for the next wave of the virus, this might be a good moment to take a short break from all the hand-wringing and finger pointing and give ourselves a collective pat on the back. While things are certainly not as good as they could have been, neither are they as bad as some would have us believe.
It’s also a good time to move on from what has now become a stale debate over when to reopen the economy and get on to a more reasoned and less polarized discussion of how to do it. The White House seems to have largely abdicated its responsibility for providing a blueprint for how to do it. Fortunately for us, however, for us one has now been provided by a group of medical and economic experts organized by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.
Titled “Pandemic Resilience: Getting It Done,” the report recommends that it is time to move on from blanket stay-at-home orders to a massively scaled-up program of testing, tracing and targeted-isolation that “would save both lives and livelihoods.” (A good account of it by two of its authors, Alex Tabarrok and Puja Ohlhaver, appeared in The Washington Post’s Outlook last weekend).
Contrary to what you hear from the sky-is-falling critics on the left, most of what can be accomplished by having everyone stay at home has now been achieved. Curves have been flattened and the number of deaths and infections are slowing declining, albeit from levels that are still too high. To reduce those levels further, the only effective and affordable strategy is not to extend the lockdown for another month, or until the end of summer, or until a vaccine is discovered. Rather, it is to focus on the people most likely to be infected and the places they are most likely to be infected, testing frequently and isolating those who are infected and the people with whom they have had significant contact. The rest of us, meanwhile, could return to most normal activities while still taking care to wear masks, keep distances and keep hands and surfaces clean.
What’s refreshing about the Safra Center report is that it would have us move beyond the earlier emphasis on statewide numbers and one-size-fits-all solutions to target the limited number of regions, workplaces and population groups that are generating the overwhelming majority of deaths. Its measure of success is not to make everyone “safe” or prevent every death or infection, but to put the country on a swift and steady path to the point that each person who gets the virus infects, on average, only one other person.
Gearing up for such an effort would take some doing — 5 million tests per day, an army of 700,000 contact tracers and a network of thousands of hotel rooms in which to isolate those who have been, or might be, infected. At an estimated cost of $74 billion — including all the testing, tracing, hotel rooms and a daily federal stipend for those forced into isolation — it could be the bargain of the century if it led to reopening a $20 trillion economy.
Here’s a practical, bipartisan, data-driven plan that both parties should embrace and make the centerpiece of the next economic rescue package. The $1 trillion in aid Democrats propose to send to cash-strapped state and local governments could be made contingent on their embracing and implementing the reopening strategy, effectively nationalizing the strategy while leaving it to states to implement it. A smart, bipartisan package should also include other common-sense provisions to reinforce the strategy and help assure its success.
For example, the business community has been demanding legal protection from lawsuits by employees who might get the virus after returning to work. That’s not an unreasonable request for companies that can show they followed all the government’s recommended safety guidelines. But it is no more reasonable than requiring those same companies to offer similar protections to their workers — protection from losing their jobs or their pay if they are vulnerable because of age or a health condition, or if they are forced into quarantine because they have been infected or come in contact to someone else who has.
To make sure those workplaces are safe, Congress should also offer businesses a tax credit for anything they spend to meet or exceed government guidelines for reducing virus risks for workers and customers. Grants for the same purpose could be offered to state and local governments, nonprofits, school and universities.
There’s been a lot of talk in real estate circles about forbearance — relieving businesses of the burden of paying their rent while their businesses are closed or suffer large reductions in sales. The problem for landlords, of course, is that they need that rent to make their monthly mortgage payments to banks or other lenders. A wave of commercial real estate defaults would set off a chain reaction that could destabilize the entire financial system.
To avoid that scenario, the financial wizards on Wall Street could be charged with creating a new category of bank loan that would provide cash to landlords who provide forbearance to their commercial or residential tenants. Congress could provide authority and funding for the Treasury to guarantee most of those loans, much as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac do for home mortgages. And, as it has with other types of credit instruments, the Federal Reserve could agree to set up a facility to buy packages of the forbearance loans if funding from private investors dries up. Tenants would still be on the hook for eventually making up for all or most of the deferred rent payments when business recovers, allowing landlords to repay their forbearance loans. In the meantime, however, a significant threat to the economy and financial system could be eliminated.
While the focus should be on reopening the economy, the reality, as Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell warned this week, is that the recovery will be slow and drag on well into next year. For that reason, Democrats are right to insist that the next rescue package include an extension beyond July of the expanded unemployment insurance provisions included in the last package. Republicans so far have demurred, complaining that the payments are so generous that they may discourage some workers from returning to jobs that pay less. The obvious compromise is to lower the payments as the unemployment rate improves, but to date neither side is willing to discuss such accommodations.
The biggest obstacle to containing the coronavirus and successfully reopening the economy isn’t the lack of test kits or protective equipment or the greed of business or the unwillingness of most Americans to follow reasonable protocols. No, the biggest obstacle is the hyper-partisanship and dysfunction that continue to grip the nation’s capital, diverting energy and attention and eroding the trust we have in our institutions and in each other. In the face of the greatest economic challenge since the Great Depression, can we please just get along? Our lives and our livelihood depend on it.