Trump's false narrative that protecting public health hurts the economy

Trump's false narrative that protecting public health hurts the economy
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpTwitter CEO: 'Not true' that removing Trump campaign video was illegal, as president has claimed Biden formally clinches Democratic presidential nomination Barr says he didn't give 'tactical' command to clear Lafayette protesters MORE views protecting Americans’ health in a pandemic and reviving the economy as a zero sum game in which lives must be sacrificed for the sake of the gross domestic product. (“Will some people be affected badly? Yes,” Trump says.) To that end, Trump is pressuring states to reopen faster and encouraging resistance to their stay-at-home orders, even when the orders complied with White House guidelines on reopening the economy.   

The zero-sum premise should be closely examined because this president consistently uses an ignorance-based approach to fighting the pandemic. From promising that we would soon have a vaccine to his most recent baffling comment that testing is “overrated” and that “if we didn’t do any testing we would have very few cases,” nothing that Trump says about the pandemic should be taken at face value. 

A good start in examining the zero-sum premise was made by economists at the Federal Reserve and MIT in a recent working paper that analyzed data from the 1918-1919 Spanish flu pandemic. The Spanish flu killed 50 million people worldwide between 1918 and 1920, including around 600,000 in the United States. As the disease spread, the American economy experienced a deep recession and serious deflation that lasted until July 1921. 

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The findings of the economists deserve our full attention. They concluded that “cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively” with social distancing, bans on public gatherings, including schools and churches, and business restrictions, actually had “a relative increase in real economic activity after their pandemic.” For example, cities that reacted 10 days earlier to the pandemic experienced greater manufacturing employment after the pandemic than cities that delayed.  

Especially relevant is the economists’ finding that cities that kept restrictions in place for approximately an extra six weeks had on average, 6.5 percent higher manufacturing employment after the pandemic than those cities that opened up sooner.  

St. Louis and Philadelphia were two of the cities studied by the economists. When the deadliest wave of the Spanish flu hit the United States, St. Louis closed its schools, movie theaters, saloons and other public venues, including Sunday church services. The city health commissioner faced numerous objections but held firm. St. Louis had the lowest death rate among the 10 largest cities in the United States.

Philadelphia, by contrast, allowed public activities to continue. Ignoring the pleas of doctors, the city leaders held a huge, well-attended parade in 1918 to promote government war bonds. Just days after the parade, the city had to stack decomposing bodies three and four high outside of the morgue, which had been overwhelmed.    

Philadelphia had the worst of both worlds in the Spanish flu pandemic. The city had twice the death rate of St. Louis, losing a staggering 1 percent of its population and, according to the Federal Reserve-MIT economists, suffered a greater job loss than St. Louis and had a weaker recovery.  

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One working paper, of course, is not the last word. The authors noted that other economic factors were at play, including the economic shock from the end of World War I and, as well, that the 1918 Spanish flu was far deadlier than the coronavirus pandemic (so far anyway).  

But the point is that no one should be quick to accept President Trump’s insistence that mortality is the price we must pay for a healthy economy. As Dr. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciOvernight Healthcare: Fauci says coronavirus task force activity 'intense' despite decreased visibility The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump juggles three crises ahead of November election Fauci: Coronavirus task force activity 'intense' despite decreased visibility MORE, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been warning, by prematurely relaxing protective measures, we could bring down on ourselves an outbreak that we “might not be able to control,” which could badly hinder efforts to revive the economy.   

Put another way, contrary to the president’s insistence, saving people’s lives may be good for the economy. 

Gregory J. Wallance, a writer in New York City, was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.