It’s the newly-discussed tradeoff and a very real one — the public health steps currently imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus versus the massive economic damage left in the wake of those measures.
A few days ago my friend, Jon Caldara wrote a column opening with the assertion that, “The cure could be far more deadly than the disease.”
Jon’s is a fair point, thoughtfully made. But it also happens to be wrong. So allow me to offer a rebuttal.
First off, at the risk of damaging my reputation, I should acknowledge that I agree with Jon on more issues than some of my friends might surmise. His free-market zeal rings true more often than not. With respect to COVID-19, Jon and the Independence Institute which he heads have put forth a number of useful deregulatory suggestions, some of which have been put in place by Gov. Jared Polis.
Jon is someone easy to caricature. He often seems to relish his role as a punching bag for many on the other political side. However, that is not my manner nor my purpose here.
The flaw in Jon’s core argument, and in that being more vocally made in recent days by others including the stock-ticker virtuoso occupying the Oval Office, relates to the nature of the threat and the potency of this virus.
COVID-19 is not your typical winter influenza. Exclamation point; underscore; bold face.
There is nothing typical or normal about this disease. This is a once-in-multiple-generations occurrence; perhaps once in a century. At least, we can only pray that is the case.
The sooner that we accept the scale and dimension of this peril, the easier it will be to take stock of the tradeoffs and accept the short-term economic medicine, no matter how distasteful. Of course, there are tradeoffs and multiple considerations. Such is life. To take a few of the examples most frequently posited, certainly we could reduce traffic fatalities by lowering the speed limit to an absurd number. And save some lives by instituting stringent quarantine and isolation protocols during annual flu season.
As a society that still understands at some level the concept of intelligent balance, we have chosen to accept such standard risks. But the argument does not logically flow that, therefore, we should accept all risks and carry on in some fashion of business-as-usual in the face of an historically potent and lethal hazard.
The risk here is not just to Jon’s parents in their mid-80s. Or to my mother at age 92. Nor is the risk just to countless others of this age cohort.
Rather, it is a systemic risk to this country’s ability to deliver essential health care in an unparalleled moment. This is the whole idea of “flattening the curve.” Even if vast masses are to be infected with the virus, it is critical to slow the pace so that the system does not get overwhelmed and overrun.
Jon, it would be sad enough if either of your elderly parents caught this. But picture them being “treated” on a gurney in some corridor. Or in a high school stadium turned field hospital. With medical staff having to keep a distance due to lack of protective equipment. And gasping for air while being denied access to a life-saving ventilator. God forbid.
Those are the pictures we see out of Italy and Spain. Those are scenes coming very soon to New York City and far too many other American locales if we don’t take the personally and economically distasteful steps to keep the curve from spiking.
National news tends to focus on the macro-economic impacts. I am far more interested in the micro-economic consequences for individuals, families and small businesses trying to stay afloat. While the congressional stimulus package is no doubt laden with the usual political pork and special favors, let’s hope that it can ameliorate some of this hardship.
This is not the first crisis to cause a major economic downturn. There’s a meme going through the ether to the effect of, “Our fathers and grandfathers were called upon to go to war. All that is being asked of us is to sit on the couch.” That period of economic sacrifice was measured in years, including rationing of food and goods, while this, if we do it right, will be presumably limited to many weeks or a few months. We can buckle up and get through this.
When we come out the other side, the economic fundamentals should not be wholly different than they were at the onset of the health emergency, save for a significant increase in the governmental debt load. The economic rebound can be just as sharp as the falloff.
Jon’s bromide as to “wealth equals health” is generally true, even if we wish it was even more the case in our land of obesity. But the implication that the United States is going to emerge from this a broken, diminished country is vastly overblown.
No one is more eager to restart and jump-start the economy. Our daughter is longing to begin grad school and our son needs a job.
But, ultimately, I trust that call to be made by experts in public health and epidemiology, and governors wise enough to listen to them, not by business boosters or a president more focused on his polling numbers than rates of viral transmission and laying down a silly marker of putting an end to this by Easter Sunday, two weeks hence.
Eric Sondermann is a Colorado-based independent political commentator.