At some point America will have to make a hard decision about whether the cure it is applying to the COVID-19 outbreak is worse than the disease.
Our initial response is to hide from the coronavirus, to “flatten the curve” of its expansion with social distancing. Schools are turned out; bars, restaurants, and barber shops are ordered closed; and whoever can do so is working from home.
These are prudent measures. But they aren’t sustainable.
If we don’t soon emerge from our hiding places and resume commerce, the damage from layoffs, bankrupt businesses and lost learning will sink the economy.
What we witnessed last week was an instant recession. An economy that had been at its most prosperous peak in a decade suddenly plunged as the measures to fight the virus’ spread were put in place.
The University of Michigan estimates this state will lose between 155,000 and 400,000 jobs, depending on the duration of the isolation. A one-third drop in the stock market has set back college savings and retirement accounts, and the slide is likely not over. Many small business owners say they don’t have the means to survive a shutdown of several weeks.
Government intervention can’t stem such an erosion of the private economy. The Treasury can’t replace every missing paycheck and business receipt.
Before too much longer, we have to end the lockdown, even if the COVID-19 risk is not eradicated.
Pushback to the total shutdown strategy is starting to surface. Over the weekend, I listened to an interview on the ZDoggMD blog with Dr. Paul Offit, a professor in the infectious diseases division of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He was on the team that developed the vaccine for the Rotavirus.
And he, too, questions whether policymaking in a time of panic is leading to wrongheaded solutions.
“There will be a lot of unanticipated consequences that will be dire,” Offit says. “The ripple effect will be very damaging. At what cost are we ultimately preventing this?”
The doctor advocates a more targeted response. Reopen workplaces, retail outlets and restaurants, but put in place intense sanitizing routines. If a case of COVID-19 is discovered, close temporarily for deep cleaning, and then reopen. Adopt strict capacity limits at stores and restaurants.
Do regular temperature testing and continue to be conscientious about personal hygiene. Most important, stay home if you have a respiratory infection.
He would also restart schools, noting that children suffer the least severe impact from the virus, and they and their families would benefit from exposure that leads to immunity.
Isolate only the most vulnerable — the elderly and those with conditions exacerbated by the virus.
“We need to figure out a way that we don’t completely shut ourselves down and still save lives,” Offit says. “I have to believe we can do that.”
So does Rich Studley, head of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. The chamber sent a letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over the weekend urging her not to issue a shelter-in-place order, as a few other governors have done. Such an order would close all but essential businesses.
“No society can safeguard public health for long at the cost of its economic health,” the letter reads.
It points out the administrative challenges of deciding which businesses are essential. A hospital is obviously essential. But what about the feeder network of trucking companies, caterers, cleaning services and others that keep it supplied and running?
Shelter in place will inevitably lead to politicians picking winners and losers, the chamber notes.
But beyond that, it puts the government in the position of taking away paychecks and profits from those who will now face poverty and ruin. And they have no choice in the matter, and no recourse.
Once such an order goes out, rescinding it is extremely fraught. Few governors would have the courage to end a shutdown until the virus is completely stamped out and risk a flare-up that takes lives.
And that could take months.
In reality, a vaccine, if one is developed, won’t be widely available before next year. Promising testing is underway on drugs to treat the worst effects of COVID-19. Hopefully those drugs are much closer to delivery.
Until they come, though, we may have to live with more risk than we are typically comfortable with, continuing to responsibly exercise precautions to protect ourselves and others while steadily resuming a semblance of normalcy.
The alternative is to allow our economic and social systems to unravel, breaking supply chains, putting at risk our once unquestioned ability to provide for our nation’s basic needs, from food to technology. Rebuilding those networks will require enormous time and investment.
The safest choice might be to burrow deeper into our caves. But if we do, the world we knew won’t exist when our hibernation ends.