Are We Ready to Open the Country?
With the incredible economic toll that the coronavirus pandemic has taken on the American economy, the question of re-opening the economy seems like a logical one. After all, in January and February, the unemployment rate in the U.S. was at a historically-low 3.5%. As of today, it is over 16%, a rate not seen since the Great Depression. Millions of Americans have had their lives turned upside down and are now wondering where the money for their next mortgage or rent payment will come from, or money for food or utilities or anything else.
This startling realty, this economic catastrophe that has upended the lives of so many, is in stark contrast to the robust economy of only a few months ago. There are some economic experts who believe it could take up to 5 years to fully recover from the damage that the pandemic has done to the economy.
Contrast that with the president’s perspective, which calls for opening the economy as soon as possible and returning the country to the robust economy that we had as recently as February. Although he has left the actual decision-making to state governors, is a rapid return to “normal” a good idea? Is re-opening the country a good idea?
This question, unsurprising, has split the country upon party and ideological lines to some degree. Supporters of the president, and many conservatives, believe that the crisis is exaggerated and that we need to be re-opening all businesses and returning to life as it was in February.
Many Democrat leaders, including many city mayors, see a rapid return to “normalcy” and a rapid re-opening of the economy as a mistake because we risk a second “wave” of infections that may be worse than the first.
I would agree with those Democrats on this issue and here is why.
One Step Forward; Three Steps Back
The only reason that the death toll in America, as awful and high as it is, isn’t even far worse is because most Americans observed stay-at-home orders and have practiced social distancing, which has contained the spread of the coronavirus and COVID-19. Even with the widespread community infection and a death toll nearing 80,000, the projections from disease modelers only a month and a half ago were for numbers between a million and two million dead.
Granted, the number of fatalities will continue to increase over the coming month as many people hospitalized in ICU units will become among the casualties of this virus, but the numbers will not be what they would have been if we had maintained our “normal” lives. There was a very real reduction in the spread of the coronavirus because people, and state governments, took decisive action to contain it. The virus requires a “vector,” an infected person, to infect others. This happens through close contact, infected droplets in the air and touching contaminated surfaces. These methods of spreading the virus were all slowed down by making it more difficult for the virus to spread from one vector to another.
The question then becomes; do we give up these hard-fought gains? Do we negate all of the efforts made?
Yes, we have many people hurting right now, who face dire economic circumstances, or who are now on the unemployment rolls hoping to get some income, but what is the alternative? This becomes an economics versus life and death question. If we can offer people some assistance from state and federal government, to temporarily cover their expenses, or ask lenders to offer forgiveness of debts for awhile, isn’t that better than people facing critical illness or death?
That is where we stand in the course of this pandemic. A period of economic difficulty or increases in death; the latter almost certain.
Battling Two Illnesses at Once
The problem with potentially increasing the infection rate at this time is that much of the new sicknesses will correspond with the seasonal flu in the fall. This provides a multi-pronged problem. One is that people will not know whether they have the flu or COVID-19 and the other being two illnesses infecting millions of people simultaneously.
The seasonal flu normally kills tens of thousands of Americans annually. When hospitals are flooded with very ill flu patients at the same time that they are attempting to treat critically-ill COVID-19 patients, the situation quickly becomes overwhelming for the healthcare system. The capacity of hospitals is stressed much more quickly than it has been to date with COVID patients alone.
A new significant uptick in the numbers of infected people is very likely with a return to work, a return to barbers, salons, bars, restaurants and other gathering places for several people. Even with strict rules in place to help mitigate viral spread, people by their very nature make mistakes. Each mistake translates to another infection; or several. Very quickly, we will find ourselves in a crisis that eclipses the most recent one. And, the infection map will be more widespread; not just in major urban centers.
So, do we rush to return to normal? The short answer is no. This is not what the millions of Americans suddenly without jobs and income want to hear, but it is the only way we prevent millions of deaths, another even bigger hit to the economy, and congested hospitals that can’t treat all of the sick people.
Many leaders in the Democratic Party have this one right, including some Republican governors who want to take a slower approach, and this is the wise response. The president is a businessman and he sees the economic pain and toll that this pandemic has dealt to a thriving economy. We also need to consider the lives of countless more victims of this viral scourge. Reopening needs to be put on pause.