The High Cost of the Shutdown

 

Sooner or later the bill must be paid. America is now paying the bill for the voluntary shutdown of the American economy to control the spread of the Covid-19 virus. The actual price of that bill is still being determined, and won’t really be known for months, but the cost in human lives is being felt now.

The unemployment figures are the starkest evidence of the high price. Unemployment reached 14.7% this week and is expected to go higher. According to The Wall Street Journal, 20.5 million workers were lost from the work force in the month of April, erasing a decade of job gains in a single month. This is the worst jobless rate in the U.S. since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

These are not just numbers. They reflect the impact of the shutdown, not the virus itself, on American lives. The damage to these lives will be felt not only in lost wages, but in declining health through depression, drug and alcohol addiction, delayed healthcare, and even suicide. CVS executives warned this week that delayed care could lead to a surge of non-corona virus related health problems including cancers undiagnosed and illnesses left untreated. There is widespread evidence of parents delaying vaccinations for their children, which will also have unintended consequences.

On March 30 I called for America to get back to work (Corona Virus Update: Time to Go Back to Work, America.) At that time President Trump was hoping to reopen the economy by Easter, which was April 12. But pressure from the media, Democratic leaders, and the Corona Virus Task Force physicians forced Trump to delay reopening until May. This may have saved some lives in the short run, but certainly increased the economic hardship in the long run.

Not everyone understands the reality of this situation or else chooses to ignore it. The Wall Street Journal editorial board calls out the media’s role in this misinformation. “Much of the media continue to treat the economic destruction as a sideshow and present a false choice between saving lives and jobs. But this is the fastest jobs collapse in modern history. The Great Depression drove millions of Americans into poverty and caused many suicides, and there’s a substantial risk this could happen again.”

The shutdown was a voluntary interruption of the economy by the Trump administration to “slow the spread” of the virus and thus preserve our ability to handle a surge in demand for healthcare facilities, especially hospital intensive care beds and ventilators. This was achieved without any reports of hospital bed or ventilator rationing. It was never intended to prevent widespread infection of the population, which cannot be achieved without an effective vaccine.

There is actually some benefit to widespread infection, as long as it does not overwhelm our ability to respond with appropriate medical care for all who need it. As more and more of the population is exposed to the virus, and develops antibodies against it, the nation will achieve “herd immunity.” This will protect our most vulnerable Americans and reduce the chances of future Covid-19 epidemics until an effective vaccine is developed. The goal should be developing “herd immunity” without overwhelming our healthcare system.

As America slowly re-opens, decisions are being made all across our nation that will have profound impact on the lives of millions of Americans. The choice cannot be strictly between what’s best to limit the spread of the virus or what’s best for the economy. It must be a combination of what’s best for both. To ignore either concern will cause unnecessary suffering of one kind or another.

WSJ summarizes the situation: “The tradeoff isn’t between lives and livelihoods. The policy goal has to be to protect both as much as possible. Deploy more personal protective equipment, greatly increase testing, build surge capability to handle flare-ups, and isolate society’s most vulnerable to keep hospitals from getting overwhelmed. But for heaven’s sake reopen the economy so we don’t consign millions to years of poverty.”

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