If you’re anything like me – and if you are I truly feel sorry for you – you’re probably suffering from cabin fever by now. Just the other day my wife, who’s been working from home during this crisis, asked me what day it was. It hasn’t been easy being cooped up with nothing to do. I was so looking forward to March Madness this month and the start of the baseball season. The former has been canceled and the latter has been pushed back indefinitely. As for the NBA and NHL, it’s anyone’s guess if we’ll ever see either league play again this season.
As week two of the Great American Lockdown comes to a close, one thing is clear. Most of us still haven’t come to grips with what this is or how profoundly it will impact our lives. As each day passes and the number of people infected with the coronavirus increases exponentially, along with the number of deaths, the one question on everyone’s mind is how much longer will it be before things return to normal? A week? A month? Two months?
They say that denial is the first stage of grief. And right now a lot of the country is in a state of denial over the global pandemic. I say a lot, because there are those who are now entering the second stage of grief: anger. Unfortunately, that anger is being misdirected towards people who had nothing to do with this virus. Like the Japanese during World War II, the Chinese are discovering just how cruel and xenophobic some people in this country can be. It’s obvious they are taking their cue from the racist president in the Oval Office.
But now that racist president is signaling that he wants to “reopen” the country, even though virtually the entire medical community says that such a move would be like throwing kerosine on a burning fire. And he isn’t alone. An op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, suggests that it’s time to “rethink” how we as a country are dealing with the virus.
The vast social distancing project of the last 10 days or so has been necessary and has done much good. Warnings about large gatherings of more than 10 people and limiting access to nursing homes will save lives. The public has received a crucial education in hygiene and disease prevention, and even young people may get the message. With any luck, this behavior change will reduce the coronavirus spread enough that our hospitals won’t be overwhelmed with patients. Anthony Fauci, Scott Gottlieb and other disease experts are buying crucial time for government and private industry to marshal resources against the virus.
Gee, where do I start? First of all, ten days is nothing. China, by comparison, shut down their entire country for two months, and to date, they, along with South Korea, are the only two countries who have successfully flattened the curve. Not only hasn’t the United States managed to slow the rise of infections, as of Thursday it is now the epicenter of the global pandemic, surpassing both Italy and China in the number of total cases.
As far as the public receiving a “crucial education in hygiene and disease prevention,” from the images we’ve seen around many parts of the country, it would seem as though that education has been for naught. Not only are some people continuing to gather in large groups, they don’t appear to be all that interested in social distancing. And regarding hospitals being “overwhelmed,” in cities like New York, we are literally days away from healthcare workers running out of the protective gear they need to care for the patients who contract the virus. How’s that for behavior change?
What’s driving this rush to normalcy is the desire to restart an economy that at the very least will suffer a bad recession and at the most, will endure a prolonged depression, the likes of which the nation hasn’t endured since the 1930s. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried. Believe me, I have no desire to live through the latter. From all the available data we have, that depression devastated much of the western world and took well over a decade to recover from. So I am sympathetic to “the cure could be worse than the disease” argument. The Journal is correct when it points out that the costs of a national shutdown “will cause tens of millions to lose their jobs as commerce and production simply cease.” Based on the unemployment claims from just this week, we’re well on our way to that becoming a reality.
But what the proponents of a “restart” fail to understand is that turning the engine back on, so to speak, will bring about the very economic armageddon they fear most. Let’s put aside the carnage of millions of Americans dying from COVID-19. And, yes, it could be that many. For the moment, we’ll concentrate only on the economics, since that appears to be the top priority of this president and his supporters.
If we’ve learned anything over the last couple of weeks, it’s that all industries, to one extent or another, are interconnected, and hence, dependent upon each other. The idea that there is such a thing as an autonomous industry runs counter to even a basic understanding of market economics. If the American healthcare system were to collapse due to the onslaught of new coronavirus cases brought about by “restarting” the economy, that would lead to a cascade effect that will ultimately impact every industry in the country.
Take the auto industry for example. Imagine a scenario where a third of the workforce among the big three auto makers is out sick for weeks at a time. Auto production would slow, which would negatively impact auto parts suppliers, which would lead to a slump in auto sales, which would lead to layoffs at car dealerships across the country, which would lead to less disposable income for people to dine out or go on vacations, which would lead to some restaurants closing and losses in the airline industry, which would lead to still more layoffs, and so on and so forth.
Now let’s look at the world of sports entertainment. Maybe you don’t give a shit about the fate of athletes making millions of dollars playing a kid’s game, but tens of thousands of people depend on those millionaires being able to play those games in front of millions of fans to put food on the table. Regardless of what Trump does or doesn’t do, the industry will be decimated this year. And the cities that are home to these sports franchises will lose billions of dollars in taxable revenue. You think sports talk is boring now; try listening to it in a couple of months. Last Sunday, ESPN ran 12 straight hours of Super Bowl highlights from the Tom Brady era. How long do you think it’ll be before sponsors start bailing on these networks and radio stations?
Think it can’t get any worse? You’re wrong. Imagine the prospect of almost half the doctors and nurses in this country unable to treat patients because they are either infected with the virus or in self quarantine. Imagine a healthcare system in which 95 percent of the resources are spent dealing with the pandemic, and where virtually every elective surgery is postponed indefinitely and only emergencies like heart attacks or cancer treatments are permitted.
If overburdened hospitals don’t concern you, try 40 percent or more of the police and firefighters of this country being sidelined with the virus. Think about what our cities will look like when the people we task with keeping our streets safe and our buildings from burning to the ground may not be able to respond in time to an emergency. And we haven’t even gotten around to the military. This is a scene right out of a sci-fi movie. Only in this case, it’ll be the new norm.
Are you starting to get the picture? If it’s negative GDP growth you’re worried about, you will get it in droves. Instead of taking our medicine up front and enduring a bad second and third quarter while the medical experts get a handle on this infection, resuming business as usual and letting the virus burn through the population will all but guarantee an economic spiral that could last for a year or more. Instead of a bad recession, the U.S. will be catapulted into a deep and lasting depression. And all because we were penny wise and dollar foolish.
Let’s be honest for a moment. We’re all frightened; we wouldn’t be human if we weren’t. Frightened people often react in ways that are not in their best interests. What is needed now is a long-term strategy, not a short-term fix. In a capitalist system, where decisions are often made based on what happened 12 hours ago, that is difficult. But there is no easy way out of this nightmare. Like it or not, we are going to have to bite the bullet. To a certain extent we already have. The $2 trillion stimulus is just the first of many such stimulus packages that will be needed in the months ahead. Before we are through, we will likely spend north of $10 trillion just to keep the gears of the economy from grinding to a halt.
The world hasn’t seen anything like this since the influenza outbreak of 1918. That pandemic killed over 17 million people world-wide and 675,000 in the U.S. alone. If we are to avoid a ghastly repeat, we are going to have to stop pretending that we know what we’re doing and defer to those who do.