What if I had told you a month ago that some sort of contagion would be unleashed upon our country that would cause 20 million people to lose their jobs and for us to go $6 trillion further into debt?
Many pundits would have likely responded, “That’s crazy. It could never happen.”
And yet it did – the economic calamity didn’t come from the coronavirus directly, but from our response to the contagion.
The virus has now caused more than 40,000 deaths in the U.S. and hundreds of thousands have been infected. The tragedy is a personal one if you lost a loved one or if you’re a doctor or nurse in the coronavirus trenches of New York’s hospitals.
Few experts will argue that New York did not react aggressively enough. Some will argue that it would have been worse had the government not enacted significant quarantines.
Yet others will argue that the viral course in New York, to a significant degree, progressed independent of any governmental response, that it spread rapidly in New York because of the density of the population, the vast subway system and the thousands of international travelers who traverse New York City on a daily basis.
Monday morning quarterback analysis of our response to this virus will become the national sport for the next few years. (Hopefully, we will also be allowed to go back to cheering for real sports also). “Experts” will debate the necessity of extreme closings of the economy in future pandemics, the long-term impact and whether a one-size-fits-all quarantine is the best approach to pandemics. Some will argue for extreme quarantine, and some arguing for less will point to population centers and rural areas around our country that fared better than New York but without as aggressive a quarantine.
Congress, never one to let debt get in the way of anything, has gone on a spending spree that includes hundreds of billions of dollars that will never be traced or repaid. The Federal Reserve has printed dollars and bought up investments in even larger numbers than it did in the 2008 bailout.
In total, our reaction to the virus may turn out to be worse than the virus itself if we don’t change course and do it soon. We will look back in 10 years and see the ruin of small businesses and jobs everywhere.
I’ve been asked to be part of the president’s task force on reopening the country. I think his instincts on this are good, so here are some of my ideas and metrics for how we do it.
First, any federal plan should be in the form of guidelines and suggestions to local officials, not mandates. Our system of federalism does not empower the nation’s capital to dictate to state and local officials how to run their business.
Second, just as every city didn’t need the same degree of quarantine, every city has an individually different ability and need to reopen. Our governor is making a mistake by treating extremely different places across Kentucky with a one-size-fits-all approach, and I urge him to change course. A 2,000-person megachurch in Louisville might not be able to socially distance the way a 100-person church in Russellville can.
In the end, the best way to handle many of the decisions on reopening should lie with us. The restaurant owner may choose to open at half capacity but still be open. The church may choose to meet outside or with appropriate social distance. Stores can open, and many will choose to have people wearing masks or limit the number of customers at one time.
People who are at greater risk may choose to stay home longer than is mandated. There is no reason when a mandatory stay-at-home order is lifted that everyone has to suddenly resume their normal lives.
As a doctor, I’ve been seeing patients with this disease. It’s a serious matter and we must urgently keep working on treatments and vaccines to get it under control.
We need to expand testing, as this will be key for many communities. We need both greater PCR testing for active disease as well as serology tests for antibodies.
We also need to reopen local doctors’ offices and hospitals. Many hospitals and doctors’ offices are at such low usage due to the shutdown that they are laying off staff or closing. This will get worse, with dire long-term consequences to local health care.
Gradual reopening is not ignoring or minimizing the problems with this disease.
By the time any order is lifted it will have been nearly two months of people isolating at home, which is enough to flatten the curve so that hospitals are not overwhelmed by the sick. Some will need longer, and that’s OK. Our system of local government will and must allow that to happen.
I look forward to helping get our country back to work, back to school and ready to reopen soon.