But that’s a false trade-off. We can address the cause of the economic downturn and also work on behalf of public health — by limiting the spread of the coronavirus.
Since the first infection of the novel coronavirus was reported in the United States in January, the number of cases has grown exponentially. The nation now has more cases than any other country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has projected that if no action is taken to prevent the spread, 160 million to 214 million Americans will become infected and as many as 1.7 million will die. Although the implementation of social distancing measures to slow the spread of the virus has been halting at times, more than 50 percent of the U.S. population in 21 states is being urged by their governors to stay at home.
States that have enforced social distancing more quickly or more aggressively appear to be more successful at “flattening the curve.” Staying home appears to be vital in stopping the spread of the virus and reducing the number of people infected. Recent evidence from Wuhan, China, where the epidemic started, suggests that the number of coronavirus cases outside of Hubei province would have been 65 percent higher without the lockdown there.
But attempts to contain the pandemic here have hit the economy hard. Some analysts estimate that the U.S. economy will contract by 25 percent in the second quarter, that 14 million jobs will be lost and that high unemployment rates will lead to low spending and a continued sluggish economy. These are economic conditions not seen since the Great Depression.
These dire predictions have prompted some politicians to call for easing social restrictions and returning to normal economic activity, suggesting that the cure for covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is worse than the disease itself. If we continue to keep businesses shuttered to contain the spread of infection, they say, the resulting economic damage will cause long-lasting and perhaps irreparable harm to the country, more harm than an uncontrolled surge of the disease itself.
In reality, the path to economic stability begins and ends with ensuring the public’s safety and health.
The economic slowdown will be harmful to the people of this country. More than 3 million people already filed for unemployment benefits last week, the most at one time since statistics have been available. More people will lose jobs, lose income and lose health insurance. The consequences of these losses can be severe for health and well-being, particularly for those who are most vulnerable.
But treating the faltering economy means treating the cause — by stopping the pandemic.
There are several reasons lifting restrictions on social interactions will not fix our economic woes.
Aggressive social distancing measures and policies will allow us to get control of the pandemic and return sooner to something close to normal economic life. If we lift restrictions prematurely, some will try to continue social distancing measures, and some will not. This less controlled, less predictable response will allow the pandemic to surge unchecked. And it will prevent the economy from returning to a sense of normalcy anytime soon. When we instruct people to stay home, it may harm businesses and the economy in the short run, but it allows us to control the health consequences of the pandemic and transition to less aggressive measures over the longer run. That will provide more stability and predictability than the roller-coaster ride of covid-19 outbreaks that will result from lifting restrictions too soon. And more stability will provide a better opportunity for economic rebuilding.
Lifting restrictions will not necessarily help reopen businesses that have closed. Much of the economic slowdown preceded the government interventions that forced businesses to shut their doors: Companies began voluntarily suspending operations before the government intervened. The National Basketball Association suspended games. The Metropolitan Museum of Art closed. Schools and universities sent students and teachers home. These decisions were made because it made business sense to protect the health of the public. If the government lifts mandatory restrictions, such voluntary closures will continue, limiting the effect of the federal government’s misguided efforts to jump-start the economy.
Besides, it’s not just businesses that will continue to follow the CDC’s recommendations on social distancing, even if Trump forces a change after April 30. Many people will, too. People are scared of contracting the coronavirus. In the face of rising rates of infection and deaths — and overwhelmed hospitals — people will continue to stay home. Human activity, and thus economic activity, will continue to be severely constrained until the virus is under control. If we want people to leave their homes, they need to be safe when they do.
The government can, should and will buffer the economic downturn. To contain the economic crisis, the Federal Reserve has already offered relief in different ways, and Congress has agreed to a $2 trillion fiscal stimulus package.
But at the same time, the federal government must stem the economic harms that would result from unchecked spread of covid-19. Without strong action, more people will die, more hospitals will be overburdened, more jobs will be lost. Getting the virus under control isn’t only the best thing for humanity; it’s also the best way to restart the economy.