WASHINGTON—The U.S. is entering a dark time. COVID-19 cases and deaths will likely spike over the next two weeks; hospitals say they are about to be overwhelmed; the economy is suffering the most dramatic and rapid downward spiral in the country’s history.
And yet, with all that on the horizon, President Donald Trump is prepared to declare victory and return to normal.
He appears to assume there’s tradeoff between preserving the economy and preserving public health. That’s an assumption most other world leaders, including Canada’s, have spared their citizens, presumably because they see a link between public health and healthy economies that has so far eluded Trump.
Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. had already topped 55,000 by Wednesday, and the number of deaths was north of 800. Confirmed cases have multiplied tenfold over the past week, while the number of deaths is doubling roughly every three days. Experts say it will be at least two weeks before the U.S. will even start to see whether social distancing and lockdowns have helped “flatten the curve” and slowed its spread.
At least two weeks. Or, as some of us refer to it, Easter.
As the public health tragedy unfolds, the Trump administration continues to send mixed messages. It has certainly recognized the economic urgency of the moment, as Congress wrangled over an unprecedented $2 trillion spending package to help Americans survive the pandemic-induced shutdown of entire sectors of the economy until the threat to public health passes.
But Trump and some conservative voices in the U.S. also seem to want to skip ahead a step, even if it means sacrificing public health. Texas Lt.-Gov. Dan Patrick suggested that senior citizens such as himself would be willing to make the “sacrifice” of lifting social distancing guidelines and “take a chance on your survival” in order to save the economy for the next generation. “If that is the exchange, I’m all in,” Patrick said.
Aside from being macabre, the suggestion that the lives of older and more vulnerable people might be sacrificed to keep the economy strong misunderstands the choice that’s actually available.
The stock market tanked and businesses were in jeopardy before the harshest shutdown orders and social distancing measures were adopted. When Trump’s Oval Office address focused on the economy, the stock market plummeted as he spoke. When he changed tone and finally started to seriously address public health measures, it responded with an uptick.
It was the outbreak that caused the economy to go into sudden widespread recession, even if the attempted cure of social distancing has made it more pronounced.
“By incurring the costs of pausing our economy for the short term, we aim to avoid significantly greater costs that would arise from allowing the virus to propagate unabated,” Lisa Kramer, a professor of finance at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, wrote in an email.
Kramer calls the economy-versus-health dichotomy a “false tradeoff.” She says the “much greater long-term reductions” in economic output that could stem from an early end to social distancing could include supply-chain interruptions, longer and deeper unemployment, higher deaths from more overwhelmed hospitals, and more severe long-term health problems from survivors.
Is an understanding of those factors the reason a similar debate hasn’t played out in Canada?
“I would like to think that deeply embedded in the values of Canadians is a sense of community,” Kramer writes. “Therefore when faced with a pandemic, it is quite natural for us to ensure our collective actions do not jeopardize the health and well-being of others.”
Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, says he thinks similar conversations are being had in Canada, but more quietly, under the media radar. “The reason it’s getting the attention it is in the States, of course, is when the president brings it up it explodes as an issue,” he said.
But it sure could get attention in Canada if Trump gets his way. “If the U.S. reopens business before public health officials give the green light, we may need to refine the way we facilitate trade across the border,” Kramer writes. While Canada would need to continue trading to get essentials like food and manufacturing components into the country, “we may need to take more stringent steps to protect the health of Canadians who facilitate trade with the U.S., including truck drivers and border-crossing guards for example.”
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Stemming the spread in the absence of a societywide lockdown could be possible under the right conditions. Places in the world that have “flattened the curve” without mass social distancing — South Korea is the major success story — have done it through widespread, reliable testing that allows quarantines of those infected, tracking of interactions, and quick treatment. North American countries are a long way from having testing capacity on that scale, despite a ramp-up in the U.S. that has seen a fivefold increase in tests daily over the past week, up to 65,000 tests conducted on Tuesday.
There could be a day on the horizon — a “beautiful day,” as Trump envisions it — when the spread of the virus could be successfully controlled while allowing a gradual return to something like business as usual. But as Dr. Anthony Fauci said Tuesday at the same podium as Trump, it depends on mass testing accompanied by “identification, isolation, and contact tracing.” As Fauci hinted in urging “flexibility” in the president’s timeline, that day is unlikely to come as soon as Easter.
The U.S. could be entering its darkest period since the Civil War. How dark it gets could depend on not trying to have businesses turn the lights back on too quickly.