How America can get its economy back up and running as quickly as possible
Letting the pandemic spread unchecked would only make things much, much worse
For about a week, it seemed as though President Trump and the Republican Party were taking the novel coronavirus epidemic at least sort of seriously. But you didn't think we'd escape that easily, did you? Now a new argument is quickly gaining currency on the right, and among some libertarians — with all the economic damage from the outbreak, perhaps we should just lift the social distancing measures in a week or so and hope for the best?
As my colleague Joel Mathis writes, this idea is complete lunacy. However, other countries have demonstrated there is a way to make shutdown measures as short as possible, protect the American people from the fallout, and keep the economy ticking over in the meantime.
The smartest countries like Taiwan and Vietnam managed to get ahead of their outbreaks, but that is already out of the question for us — the United States probably already has the worst outbreak in the world, and it is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. However, China, South Korea, and some European countries have demonstrated a viable backup strategy. First, you lock down the population to prevent the spread of the virus, and boost up medical system capacity as much as possible. The state must recruit as many additional medical workers as possible, build field hospitals where they are most needed, and mobilize factories wartime-style to produce vital supplies like gloves, N95 and surgical masks, protective gowns and suits, disinfectant and hand sanitizer, and so on. With sufficient production, both medical personnel and ordinary citizens can protect themselves and slow transmission further.
Meanwhile, as Denmark is doing, you pass an economic rescue that keeps people fed and housed during the lockdown. As I've discussed previously, this includes stuff like paying businesses to keep their staff on payroll, boosting unemployment insurance, direct cash payments to individuals, and so on. The basic idea is to keep systems of economic production in stasis until the crisis passes.
Simultaneously, you drastically ramp up testing and contract-tracking systems. Once widespread lockdown measures have stanched the initial outbreak, health authorities can zero in on where the virus actually is, and start stamping it out directly. You set up testing checkpoints at every border crossing and all over the country, and start mass-sampling people in hard-hit areas and at random. Anybody who tests positive is placed in mandatory quarantine, as well as anyone with whom they have come in contact. Once it can be proved that a region no longer has the virus spreading in the wild, people can start slowly going back to their normal lives — with the knowledge that should the virus pop up again, they should be ready to put distancing measures back in place. In addition to a coronavirus test, the state should deploy antibody tests that can show if someone has already had the virus and is now immune. Studies are already being done about how the virus works, and what kind of lockdown and sanitation measures work best, which authorities can use to adjust their containment protocols.
A few months later, with any luck, a vaccine will be close to ready, after which people can get a shot and stop worrying altogether. And with government support putting the economy into deep freeze, most of America's businesses will still be there on the other side, ready to go. Hey presto, in a few months we could be back to something fairly close to normal.
This strategy is conceptually simple but logistically complicated. The initial lockdown needs to be severe — many U.S. states and cities have only recently gotten even close to the drastic steps China used in Wuhan, and some like Mississippi and Florida are still refusing to participate. As Italy shows, even a slight delay is lethal — given how contagious the virus is, just a few days of procrastination can lead to hundreds of thousands being infected. And the U.S. is still not doing any sort of full-scale medical mobilization, nor building up any kind of major test-and-track capability across the country — a complicated and difficult business that will take months to set up at least. A half-sufficient economic rescue package is in the works, but Congress is still far short of the type of measures other countries have implemented to help workers and small businesses stay afloat.
As Jeet Heer writes at The Nation, it's not hard to see why free market worshipers like Richard Epstein (whose garbage hot take was being passed around by the Trump administration staffers) are resistant to the test-and-track strategy. It requires direct state command of the economy, a vast expansion of state bureaucracy, and the kind of generous welfare benefits they have spent their lives trying to stop or destroy. And with what amounts to a general strike happening, their investment portfolios are being devastated! Surely there must be some way of getting workers back at the job producing value for shareholders to skim off in a way that doesn't involve a lot of ideologically unpalatable socialist policy?
But there is not. Relaxing social distancing measures before the outbreak has definitely been contained and testing-and-tracking measures are ready is bug-eyed lunacy that will just further fuel the epidemic. Moreover, all the lockdowns so far have been implemented at the state level, and are as much driven by mass panic as they are by official declarations. It's becoming clear that even for young, healthy people with no preexisting conditions, a case of COVID-19 can sometimes be very serious and require hospitalization to survive. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Tuesday that 25,665 of his state's residents have tested positive, and 3,234 so far (or 13 percent) have required hospitalization. His experts now estimate the state will need about 140,000 hospital beds and 40,000 ventilators to manage the epidemic's peak — as compared to the current total of 53,000 and 10,000 respectively.
The virus is already in every state. Ones that refuse to lock down will sooner or later have out-of-control outbreaks that overwhelm their hospitals and make it near-impossible for anyone to get treatment, for COVID-19 or anything else — remember that most hospitals are typically mostly full all the time from the usual heart attacks, strokes, childbirths, and so on. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, will die, and most people will flee inside in terror — creating the very lockdown conservatives are resisting. In addition to unavoidable mass carnage, the economic damage will last much longer and be much worse. As Steve Randy Waldman argues, a deliberately uncontrolled outbreak might even shatter agricultural supply chains and basic services so badly that the United States literally falls apart.
For a moment, I almost convinced myself that reality was finally cracking through the propaganda armor of the conservative movement. But it seems they are resorting once again to denial and wishful thinking, like a child sticking his fingers in his ears and yelling when his mother says he can't have any more sweets. If Trump and Republicans actually pursue this, America will choose just about the worst of all possible future options.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.