How many lives is the world economy worth? That’s not a trite oversimplification. It is an open question being raised by President Donald Trump.
He is itching to scale back on social distancing as soon as possible and openly wondering if this is all worth it. The all-caps was his in a tweet Sunday: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”
The disease – There’s a coronavirus pandemic raging out of control that directly threatens mass death among a percentage of the population – as well as the prospect of an overwhelmed health care system, putting even those who never get Covid-19 but who need other care at risk.
The cure – A self-inflicted economic shutdown that could launch a calamity more severe than the Great Depression. Government stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders aim to slow the spread of coronavirus and buy time to develop a vaccine, but they have already triggered widespread layoffs and threaten the prospect of mass unemployment.
Dollars versus deaths – At the bottom of Trump’s tweet is a terrible calculus: How many lives is the economy worth? One thing we know, thanks to the groundbreaking work of husband-and-wife economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case: economic hopelessness kills people, too.
Trump made clear Monday that his preference is to open the country back up regardless of what doctors tell him. He said the shutdown will cause problems like suicides, and complained that the economy had been blazing before the virus hit.
“We have to open our country because that causes problems that could be far bigger,” he said. Doctors, he said, would shut down the whole world. “We can’t let that happen to our country, we have the greatest country in the world, I’m not going to let that happen,” he said.
Governors are making their choice, coming down on the side of shutting things down. (Maryland joined that list on Monday.) Trump will have an opportunity to explain his thinking during a White House press conference this evening. And the country will soon have to decide between economy and epidemiology.
There are no answers
On the virus: The surgeon general is warning that the Covid-19 outbreak is going to get much worse before it gets better;
On treating the sick: The mayor of New York, Trump’s hometown, is crying out for help;
On fixing the economy: Lawmakers on Capitol Hill failed again to pass a massive stimulus to keep the economy afloat.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked about Trump’s tweet on CNN Monday and he said that easing up on social distancing will kill people.
“How many members of our family, especially our older relatives, who are the people really vulnerable here, are we simply saying as a nation, we’re going to turn away and ignore the challenges facing them? I don’t think that’s right,” he said, warning that the health care system could become literally unable to function and overrun by this outbreak.
“So I understand people who say wow, this is an extraordinary sacrifice. It is, but if you don’t slow this thing down, you’ll sacrifice a lot more on the other end of the equation. We have to think about the human cost here.” More from that interview here.
15 days and then what?
De Blasio is focused on saving lives at all costs. Several states have closed schools for the rest of the year.
Others are putting a time limit on the maximum effort. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, has become increasingly critical of the economic clampdown: “… no society can safeguard public health for long at the cost of its overall economic health,” the Journal wrote in an editorial last week. “Even America’s resources to fight a viral plague aren’t limitless—and they will become more limited by the day as individuals lose jobs, businesses close, and American prosperity gives way to poverty.”
Bad analogies – Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, questioned lockdown last week, arguing we don’t shut down roadways because people die in traffic accidents.
That led Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, to point out that the alternative is a lot of people dying. “I don’t think with any moral conscience you could say, ‘Why don’t we just let it rip and happen and let X percent of the people die,’” Fauci said.
Impossible choices – The ultimate issue in this excruciating dilemma is the choice is between many people dying and many more people not just disrupting their daily lives, but potentially losing their ability to subsist on a scale far beyond what Congress, which is talking about sending people hundreds of dollars or even a little more, can realistically fix.
Related: This is not going away – Here’s what happened when Hong Kong let its guard down.
Also, we’ve said this before, but it’s not just older people who get sick. Read about this 12-year-old girl battling coronavirus.