Whether it’s shelter in place, lockdown, quarantine or something that sounds less restrictive, our economy has been effectively shut down. The reaction to the COVID-19 virus has been the call for everyone, everywhere to hide in their safe space rather than expecting everyone to act like a responsible adult, follow sensible rules for personal hygiene, to stay home if you’re sick and then keep our businesses running so we can all produce what we need to face the new virus while keeping our families safe and solvent. The enormous loss of economic output caused by this shutdown, let alone the trillions of dollars now being digitally created and given away by the government to alleviate a portion of the lost wages will be a long lasting anchor on our future growth and recovery.
Here in PA, the governor has classified businesses as non-essential, essential and life-sustaining and, now, only the latter can remain open. Are you comfortable with the governor assuming he has sufficient knowledge of the innumerable inter-dependencies among businesses to do that? Are you willing to bet our economic future on it? In any case, isn’t the income people earn from their employment in any business, life sustaining for them?
When turned loose and asked to pitch in, our businesses, both small and large, can turn their human and capital resources into highly effective tools to face this challenge and examples of this abound already, but closed they can do nothing. Remember, all of the products the government is passing out to deal with COVID-19 are made by the businesses in our country, they’re not produced by the government.
Public health officials and the medical community always recommend the most stringent actions to save the most lives, it’s not in their wheelhouse to consider economic costs, but those costs can’t be avoided and they’re extremely high. At the same time, the general public is unaccustomed to considering how many lives are lost on a regular basis due to any number of diseases and illnesses every year, for reasons attributable to individual behavior as much as nationwide epidemics. Those lives lost are not covered on cable news because they occur all the time even though they can be far above anything so far caused by COVID-19. Too many TV viewers see what’s on the news and imagine it’s what’s happening outside their own window, in their own town, but it’s not, those are images of the worst locations, those are where the news cameras focus. To cable news, this virus is a ratings bonanza and they will offer breathless coverage as long as possible.
Potential therapeutic drugs are available
Another frustration is the reluctance of Dr. Fauci, one of the primary members of the president’s task force, to approve the use of various pharmaceutical options such as the anti-malarial drug chloroquine in the fight against the virus. He’s unconvinced it is effective in alleviating symptoms and speeding recovery and he constantly states all evidence is anecdotal, which is because he hasn’t run his own trials, even though it’s been in use for many decades and other countries are using it now with some success and he must be unconvinced by previous studies of its effectiveness against SARS, a similar coronavirus. Drug companies have donated millions of tablets, why not begin a very large scale trial immediately by using them with infected patients? Carefully gather data in the process and there you have it, a trial. Chloroquine is just one example, here’s another.
A strong argument in favor of using drugs such as chloroquine is that it may prevent progression of the virus to the point where hospitalization is necessary and especially reduces the chances of needing a ventilator. If a patient needs to be placed on a ventilator, the chances of survival are very low, yet we are rapidly working to build up the number of ventilators before trying to use the drugs which could keep infected individuals from needing one.
As testing increases and many new cases are identified we’re finding the fatality rate is lower than initially estimated because there are more infected individuals than were known and the number of deaths is increasing at a much slower rate than the number of newly identified individuals.
Prioritize the response
We need to isolate those who have been identified as having the virus and it makes a great deal of sense to protect the most vulnerable, those who are very elderly and those with compromised immune systems, but we can do this without shutting down our entire economy. If the less vulnerable are allowed to get our businesses back in operation using all appropriate precautions, some number may be infected, but they will be far more likely to recover after a short and potentially milder progression of the virus, while building up immunity. At that point they can no longer be infected or pass the virus on to anyone else. As immunity rises in the population, the virus will find it difficult to spread, there will be fewer who can infect the most vulnerable who will then be in less danger. If we keep everyone quarantined, including the young and healthy, we will be postponing the time when herd immunity can be established and any relaxation of the isolation will simply restart the spread and there will be calls to shut down the country again.
Focus resources on hotspots
On a national level, restricting travel to and from other countries while we get a handle on the virus here is an obvious move and applying more restrictive and focused responses to those hotspots in our country with a great many cases, is necessary as well. While every state has some number of cases, they are concentrated in and around large cities and applying the same restrictions to businesses nationwide is both needless and economically disastrous.
There are no perfect solutions to this problem, only trade-offs, but hiding in our homes and killing our economy is not the answer to anything. This virus may be with us in one form or another for the foreseeable future, just like the flu, but we’ll build up immunity and develop better therapeutic responses as time goes on. In the meantime, we need to restart our economic engine before the damage gets any greater.