Americans cannot be expected to support economic suicide

Americans cannot be expected to support economic suicide
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Dr. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump blends upbeat virus info and high US death forecast The Memo: Concerns grow over political pressure on coronavirus experts Overnight Health Care: More states order residents to stay at home | Trump looks to sell public on coronavirus response | Judges block Ohio, Texas abortion bans | Dems eye infrastructure in next relief bill MORE is a national treasure. He has once again, as head of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, provided invaluable leadership, this time in the current coronavirus pandemic. His plan, now established as national policy, is to slow the infection rate to provide our health care system the time and resources to care for (and save) as many people as possible. 

The problem with this plan is that it includes shutting down the U.S. economy with no clear indication of how and when it will resume. Americans are being told the lockdown must continue as long as necessary to bring the virus under control, apparently regardless of the consequences. Dr. Fauci and others prefer to be criticized for “overreacting” than for failing to do enough. He said last week on Meet the Press: “I think we should really be overly aggressive and get criticized for overreacting.”

The current policy of shutting down most of the economy for an indefinite period is unsustainable. Sacrifice has its limits. Americans cannot be expected to support economic suicide. Unemployment is expected soon to reach 30 percent; GDP is expected to be substantially negative, as in any depression; the financial system is in danger; and Congress may fail to act fast enough and strongly enough to ward off the worst. 

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Economic disasters can cause as much if not more illness, deaths, crime and other harm, over a far longer period, than even a highly infectious virus. The market and the public need to know that the current plan includes a commitment to avoid unreasonable economic hardship. 

No one in his right mind should support “overreacting,” which, according to Merriam-Webster, means “to respond to something with too strong an emotion or with unnecessary or excessive action.” Dr. Fauci did not say he believes the current program is overly aggressive; he said he is willing to face being accused of overreacting to get it implemented. No plan should do more harm than it avoids.

It is unreasonable to rely exclusively on the expectation that the economic hardships will be avoided by a vaccine, by any known treatment or by governmental intervention. A vaccine is at least a year away, absent revolutionary developments. Treatments, even cures, are possible, and the president is pushing hard to allow every available FDA-approved drug to be tried on patients prepared to accept the risk. Again, while progress will be made, and a miracle is possible, we should meanwhile proceed on the premise that helping the sick will not prevent a lengthy lockdown.

Economic support is essential. The president and Congress know that shutting down most of the economy is having dire consequences. Even if they act soon enough, though, support efforts can only temporarily mitigate the damage. 

Restarting the economy is the only guaranteed way of overcoming the effects of paralyzing the economy. This objective will become the central focus of public policy very soon; we want to “bend the curve” but without unjustifiable consequences. Many ideas will be advanced. Already, “essential” activities are continuing, e.g. financial institutions; health care; food manufacture, distribution and sale; and national security activities. Ways should be sought to expand this list.

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Testing is one measure with potential to significantly reduce economic hardship. But thus far testing is strictly limited. Currently, this policy makes sense, since we still don't have enough tests available to satisfy the priority needs of protecting health care workers and sick individuals. But access to testing is rapidly increasing in the U.S., and the available tests are getting better and faster. Cepheid recently announced FDA approval of a test that takes only 45 minutes to process.

Very soon we will be able to use tests (along with other means) to establish “safe-zones” for resuming economic and social activities. For example:

  • Businesses that operate without the physical presence of customers could make their offices, warehouses and factories safe by testing all employees and service providers.
  • Shared spaces used by start-ups and entrepreneurs could insist that all users be tested and disallow entry by guests.
  • Airlines could administer tests to all employees in advance, and soon to all passengers during the check-in process.
  • Schools and universities could test and clear every student, teacher and employee and thereby permit millions of parents to go to work.
  • Businesses that rely on customers, such as restaurants, bars, theaters, amusement parks, could increase safety materially by testing staff and all customers on entry.
  • Testing would enable us to safely allow foreigners into the U.S. who are helping our economy, such as lawful agricultural workers from Mexico.

At some point wholesale testing of communities will become possible, providing invaluable data and guidance. Many questions are certain to arise, such as: How should testing be regulated? How much risk is tolerable? Could a digital “passport” be developed as a phone application recording each test result? All can be effectively addressed. 

The base assumptions should be that: (1) safe-zone testing would be allowed only so long as the infection rate is sufficiently under control to enable our health care systems to cope; (2) steps to resume productive activities should be given priority so long as they do not upset the health care balance; and (3) the elderly and vulnerable should continue to shelter until an effective treatment or vaccine is in place. People exposed to economic activities will more often become infected than if no such activities were permitted. But a manageable increase in infections among those who can overcome the virus would be preferable to the consequences of economic collapse.

It is time to plan a return to economic growth. Safe-zones and eventually widespread testing should be part of the process. 

Abraham D. Sofaer is the George P. Shultz Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Hoover Institution.