PRAIRIE VIEW, Texas (May 15, 2020) – The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic stunned the world in the early months of 2020. Like a colossal natural disaster, it upended personal and work lives in America. It created immense hardships on families and disastrous losses in the national economies around the world. Although their reaction was delayed and erratic, many nations took drastic and unprecedented steps to control the spread of the disease and get ahead of this invisible enemy. The weapons of defense in humanity’s arsenal included social distancing, increased hygiene, and quarantine for those who tested positive. However, taking these steps have enormously disrupted our work lives, since much of wealth creation depends on daily physical human interaction.
In the United States, as post-pandemic statistics become available, we have seen the cataclysmic impact on individual and national income and wealth – more than 30 million jobs have been lost, creating an unemployment rate of 14.7%, a number that breaks all records going back to the Great Depression of the 1930s. The next quarter’s numbers, according to some models, could be even more nightmarish, with declines in gross domestic product (GDP) exceeding 34%. Enormous wealth has been lost, and the bleeding continues as long as society imposes social distancing and the disruption necessary to prevail on this crafty virus.
This explains the urge to reopen economies and return to normal commerce. Those who argue for the “great reopening” have found President Trump as their main champion. The pain felt by millions of workers and small businesses is real. Despite massive disaster relief packages arriving in the form of stipends from the federal government, without work, there is no end to suffering. Too many poor and low-income families live on the margins of survival and stand to lose their savings and their homes if this blow to their livelihood continues.
The proponents of early opening argue in favor of following the path taken by other nations, such as Sweden, which have resisted closing down their economies in response to the same threat. The list also includes South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong, where, generally, commerce has continued. Second, some say that the threat of the virus and its fatality rates have been overblown – yes, there is risk, but why should we treat this differently than, say, the risk from catching the flu or another contagious disease, which we take in stride? Third, the risk is clearly less for the young and the healthy, so why should we punish them and ask them to sacrifice for older citizens and those who are more vulnerable because of preconditions and other vulnerabilities? The medicine – social distancing and sheltering at home – are like poison to the economy and wealth creation. Why kill the patient with the medicine?
On the other side of the debate are those who caution against a premature rush to open economies and return to normal business and commerce. These health experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, among the nation’s leading infectious disease experts, make the case that we have the means to overcome this viral attack, but it will not be painless. To succeed, nations must listen to the public health professionals and the scientists called epidemiologists who study the spread of disease. The United States has the best scientific resources in the world. Health professionals uniformly recommend that, painful and costly as it is, we must continue with the social distancing and stay-at-home measures for a few more weeks to “flatten” the curve representing the number of new infections. Since the virus is not a living organism, the only way for it to spread is for humans to provide vehicles to increase the number of “hosts” by intermingling in close quarters.
“Prevention is better than cure” is an old saying that is pertinent to this dilemma. Here, if we prevent the spread of the virus, fewer people get sick, and this buys us time to develop a vaccine and find other effective ways to deal with this virus. Instead of the strategy of “herd immunity,” where society willingly allows a certain fraction of the population to be infected, we need to use modern medicines to find effective cures to mitigate this crisis. Other nations have successfully achieved this, even including states like California.
Clearly, it does not make sense to pit one group against the other – the young against the old, or one state against another. All lives matter, and as one nation, we are in this crisis together, and we can overcome it only if we stick together.
One can argue that to open or not to open is a false choice. Instead of the tyranny of “or,” we have to be creative in moving toward the genius of “and.” Yes, we can find ways to both open the economy, rebuild our depleted wealth, and conquer the pandemic to protect our health and lives. How? By opening the economy, but doing so in a measured and responsible manner and following the best guidance our scientists offer to preserve and save lives. This means a massive and sustained increase in testing and tracking those who have the virus, and those in contact with them, and guaranteeing that testing and tracking. Has anyone done this successfully? Certainly. The examples are all around us, from New Zealand to South Korea, and, again, California. Economists and health policy experts tell us that this will be expensive – perhaps $100 billion – but significantly cheaper than the cost of continuing the closure of the economy.
The pandemic can, and must, be managed effectively with ingenuity and the immense resources we possess as a nation. America is widely considered a “superpower” on the world’s stage for our wealth and defense capabilities, but also for our talents, institutions, laws, and entrepreneurial citizens. To overcome this malaise, we must unite as a nation and act together with discipline and optimism. The history of America is full of stories of how the nation has overcome great trials and tribulations. The nation will overcome this pandemic and emerge stronger and wealthier, if we do this the right way. Once again, the crisis provides us with a rare opportunity to lead the world and help other nations and people overcome this grave danger with generosity and care.
Whether the states open up their economies, as more than a dozen are already doing, clearly, the economic cost of this health disaster will be colossal – in trillions of dollars of wealth wiped off. It will set back our standards of living for years. The human cost is monumental, as tens of millions will remain unemployed, but it could get worse. So, the argument is that since society has already paid such a huge price in stopping this virus, why not stay on this path to increase the probability of long-term success? By opening pre-maturely without appropriate precautions – such as massive upscaling of testing, tracking, and quarantining those infected – there is a real danger that early gains will be lost.
A far better strategy would be to open the economy in a “smart” manner, as nations like South Korea have done. Make the necessary investments in testing, tracking, quarantining, and infrastructure to combat this threat. Then, reopen the economy and allow society to return to normal, except, it will likely be a different world – the new normal.