Now the latest source of outrage is the president’s announcement that wants to begin lifting the current economic lockdown by Easter. In a press briefing Tuesday, Trump said his “goal is to ease the guidelines and open things up to very large sections of our country” and that “I hope we can do this by Easter,” but added that “our decision will be based on hard facts and data.”
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Every life matters. That is why at the start of a pandemic, the right strategy is to accept high economic risk in order to mitigate the risks to public health of a new and unknown pathogen. Trump effectively ordered a recession — asking businesses to close and workers to stay home — to slow the spread of the virus so that public health officials could learn how it behaves, develop our testing capability and increase the production of protective gear, ventilators and hospital capacity for the hardest-hit areas, as well as the development of therapeutics to treat it.
But over time, as we get a handle on the outbreak, we need to start adjusting our decision-making to balance risk with the massive toll the lockdown is taking on the American people. While journalists can telework, millions of Americans who can’t are losing their careers and the businesses they spent a lifetime building. A prolonged economic shutdown will lead to deaths as well, in the form of increased rates of depression, substance abuse and suicide.
The president understands that we need a sustainable strategy to defeat the virus and that the current lockdown is unsustainable. A record 3.28 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, and economists warn that gross domestic product could decline by about 30 percent in the second quarter as a result of the lockdown. That can’t continue indefinitely.
The emergency relief bill buys us some more time, but at enormous cost. We are borrowing $2 trillion from our children and grandchildren so the government can effectively replace the lost revenue and paychecks of millions of businesses and workers in the United States. We can’t do that forever. And replacing lost income does not replace the dignity of work.
No one in the White House is suggesting that we sacrifice the elderly or the vulnerable. Asked by a reporter “how many deaths are you willing to accept?” to restore growth, Trump answered “none.” Rather, the goal is to get this country to the same place as South Korea, which has effectively contained the virus without quarantining tens of millions of people. South Koreans did so by following a strategy of “Trace, Test and Treat” — using mass testing to isolate the infected while allowing healthy people to go about their lives. South Korea has been able to do this because it was able to test early. We have not because we lost six crucial weeks in ramping up testing thanks to the incompetence of the Food and Drug Administration, which refused to allow private and academic advanced labs to develop coronavirus tests. Only in March were FDA restrictions lifted and outside labs given the green light to begin testing.
It will take time to catch up, but once we reach that point where we can test anyone, we can start figuring out where we can ease up on the lockdowns. As Anthony S. Fauci said on Tuesday, “areas of the country that are not hot spots … still have a window of significant degree of being able to contain” the virus. It may be that in these parts of the country where there aren’t many cases, we can begin to follow the South Korean approach soon, while the hardest-hit places such as New York may need to maintain a lockdown for many months.
Will that happen by Easter? Maybe, maybe not. As Fauci says, we need to be flexible and follow the evidence. But it has to happen eventually.