The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The government must pay people to stay home

Physical distancing won’t work unless livelihoods are secure while we slow the spread of covid-19

A sign in Chicago encourages people to stay home amid the coronavirus outbreak. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

Congress has just passed a $2 trillion financial assistance and economic stabilization bill. While it had overwhelming bipartisan support, conservatives have complained that its expanded unemployment insurance will encourage workers to stay out of the workforce and, thus, will be an additional drag on the economy.

But keeping workers home should be precisely the point. Yes, this legislation will help to stabilize the economy and provide material support for distressed people. But it can also reinforce the public health measures needed to stop the spread of covid-19 by providing positive incentives for people to cooperate. In this regard, the legislation is a good first step, but it may not go far enough: we should be prepared to make larger direct payments, to expand unemployment insurance further and to provide direct rent relief.

In short, we should pay people to stay home — and pay handsomely. Why? Because such a strategy works to stop an epidemic.

This vital object lesson comes to us from an unlikely source: the history of animal agriculture in the United States. In fact, the earliest effective government responses to epidemic illness in the United States came not in the context of human health, but in the context of livestock. A little known government agency, the Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI) in the U. S. Department of Agriculture, pioneered effective responses to addressing epidemic illness, making the United States a global leader in this area of veterinary medicine. The BAI’s approach, known as “area eradication,” used a combination of quarantines and financial incentives to completely eradicate the pathogens of targeted veterinary illnesses. It was so successful, public health officials concerned with human illnesses studied it closely and modeled smallpox eradication campaigns from it. Today, as we grapple with covid-19 we need to heed these lessons once again.

The Bureau of Animal Industry was created within the USDA in 1884, at a time when animal agriculture was one of the largest sectors of the American economy. The United States had always been an agricultural economy, but the political ascendance of the Republican Party in the aftermath of the Civil War unlocked massive agricultural expansion. The U.S. military and settlers forcibly removed indigenous populations from millions of Western acres and slaughtered wholesale the bison that grazed there. Thanks to the Homestead Act of 1862 and the federally subsidized expansion of the railroads across the continent, cattle quickly replaced bison as the dominant grazers.

Cattle then became one of the most valuable resources in the growing agricultural economy. They grazed on the High Plains and then were transported by rail to Chicago for slaughter. From Chicago, various animal products — meat, tallow, cheese and hides — streamed East and even to Europe. By 1900, approximately 4.3 percent of the nation’s wealth was held in livestock, larger than the value of the nation’s railroads, and second only to land as a class of assets. Animal products were also a substantial export, with barreled American pork a ubiquitous presence in European markets. Even by 1870, a full fifth of the value of U.S. exports came from animal products.

The global circulation of meat and animal products also created the context for the circulation of disease. As animals traversed the North American continent, they mingled in close quarters in rail cars, feedlots and stockyards. They traded illnesses under the best of conditions, but the tight spaces of animal agriculture were also rarely hygienic. Endemic livestock illness could take a staggering economic toll, with sick and dying animals costing farmers millions. It could also ruin the nation’s already spotty reputation as a global supplier of meat. Between 1879 and 1881, Spain, Germany, France, Italy and Austria-Hungary all imposed bans on U.S. pork products due to concerns about endemic trichinosis.

Given these stakes, when epidemics of contagious bovine pleuropneumonia and Texas fever hit the U.S. cattle supply in 1884, Congress took action. Coordinating the nation’s response to veterinary illness and securing the safety of the nation’s supply of meat necessitated a federal agency. With the new BAI created, President Chester A. Arthur appointed Daniel Salmon, a veterinarian, to head it, reflecting the agency’s primary focus on the control of veterinary illness. (The bacteria salmonella, discovered by one of his assistants, is named in Salmon’s honor.)

The BAI’s powers were vast and unprecedented. The BAI claimed the immediate ability to supervise and regulate slaughterhouses connected to global and interstate trade. But Salmon also worked with state governments to craft agreements that deputized BAI agents and endowed them with powers usually reserved for state and municipal law enforcement: the right to enter private property, to declare a quarantine, to seize and kill infected and exposed animals and even to destroy any buildings that might harbor contagions.

With these powers, the BAI pursued an unprecedented approach that came to be known as “area eradication.” The BAI would stop the spread of infectious veterinary illness by eradicating disease pathogens entirely. This required establishing a quarantine zone and restricting the transportation of animals in and out of those zones. Next, they seized and killed all infected animals within the zone (and sometimes merely exposed animals, as well). Finally, they sterilized and destroyed any buildings or equipment that they believed might spread disease.

Salmon and other experts at the BAI were acutely aware of how quarantine could hurt business. They reasoned that restrictive measures alone would suffer from a fatal flaw: Farmers would resist having their stock seized and killed, since it would mean immediate financial ruin. They would do everything they could to conceal evidence of illness, to quietly treat sick animals themselves, to avoid public veterinary health officials and finally to stealthily transport their stock out of the quarantine zones and sell them in other markets. Rather than containing illness, such responses would spread disease further and could accelerate small outbreaks into devastating pandemics.

The BAI had a simple pragmatic approach that defied short term market logics: They offered to purchase sick animals at rates close to the market value of healthy animals. This encouraged farmers to voluntarily cooperate with quarantine measures rather than trying to evade them, avoiding long term catastrophic losses for the agricultural industry.

The BAI’s approach was enormously successful. In 1892, a BAI campaign successfully eradicated contagious bovine pleuropneumonia in the United States. Successful campaigns to eradicate Texas fever, hog cholera and bovine tuberculosis all came in the following decades. Congress strengthened the BAI’s hand further with the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906. Meanwhile, public health officials studied the BAI’s approach, and contemporary epidemiologists credit the BAI with pioneering “the precedent and mechanisms” that would lead to smallpox eradication.

This history reminds us that quarantines may be tools of medical authority, but their success and failure depends on human psychology informed by material needs. BAI experts immediately understood the inseparability of the economic and the medical precisely because the victims of disease were property. This sparked thinking that sought to align financial interest with public health priorities.

Humans cannot be reduced to their economic value, but the larger lesson applies now as well: Efforts to stabilize the “economy” must be structured to reinforce public health measures. We cannot make it a “sacrifice” to stay home under quarantine. We need to make staying home the lucrative option. If that seems too expensive to you, weigh it against the death of millions. The choice should be obvious.