Calls To Prematurely Reopen The Economy Are Dead Wrong

Right-wing circles are calling for the economy to reopen too soon. Not only would it make COVID-19 more deadly, it would cause further economic damage.
Fox News hosts and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) – April 11, 2020 (Source: Fox News)

Fox News hosts and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) – April 11, 2020 (Source: Fox News)

As Americans brace for yet another four weeks of mass lockdowns and quarantines, a din of voices from the predictable corners of the nation’s right-wing punditocracy are agitating to abandon today’s caution and social distancing in order to “save the economy.” They’re almost giddily comparing the death tolls from COVID-19 to those of car accidents and smoking, or common illnesses like the flu, foaming at the mouth with rage that epidemiological models keep being adjusted to stay on top of current events.

Some of them appear to almost certainly lack the brainpower to understand that if passing by a traffic accident meant that you had a 25% chance of getting into one yourself in two weeks, driving would be banned overnight and that models are just statistical possibilities to guide decision-making, not a soothsayer’s crystal ball. Others simply view their fellow citizens as expendable pawns in their quest for money and political influence. And all of them are dead wrong and extremely dangerous in their increasingly sociopathic ramblings.

First and foremost, let’s tackle the basic question of why we’re doing social distancing for COVID-19 and not the flu, asked by Matt Walsh, a man who mistakes often going viral for saying ridiculous things with being a serious thinker. While it would certainly help lower the death toll for seasonal flu, social distancing isn’t a great solution for a virus we understand and with a significantly lower mortality rate. You can get tested, treated, and vaccinated for the flu at your nearest doctor’s office and we have both reliable medications for it and a baseline level of immunity from a century of exposure. In this example, the costs outweigh the benefits.

With the novel coronavirus, we have literally none of that, hence the extreme measures. Getting tested for coronavirus is still an arduous bureaucratic ordeal in much of the country and we’re still trying to find a medication that reliably works. (Despite President Trump promoting hydroxychloroquine as a miracle cure like a daytime TV snake oil salesman, doctors stopped trials of it as a COVID-19 treatment after patients developed heart problems.) A vaccine is still more than a year away in the absolute best-case scenario, and since it’s a brand new virus, we’ve yet to build up any natural immunity to it. Basically, it’s the 1918 flu epidemic all over again.

Faced with the choice between the difficulty of shutting down and reopening businesses and the difficulty of bringing millions back from the dead, any public official with two working neurons to rub together has to choose what will cause the least damage. Here’s a hint as to what the right answer to that dilemma is for all the pundits whose jowls quake with rage at the “economic devastation” we’ve seen over the past month: today’s scientific advances remain unable to resurrect the dead while we’ve always been fully capable of reopening a business.

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The Cost Of Closing And Reopening The World

Obviously, this isn’t perfect. I miss the gym, the pub, and the beach too. But it’s awfully hard to run any business when your employees and customers keep getting sick and dying, much less make a profit. Believe it or not, cadavers are terrible workers and even lousier consumers, so as right-wing radio shock jocks and politicians are — well, let’s be frank about this — demanding blood sacrifices to the gods of the stock market and corporate bottom lines, they’re in fact arguing for a prolonged, slow-motion economic and humanitarian disaster rather than enduring that pain quickly so we can return to normal much faster and with a much lower death toll.

Yes, coronavirus isn’t the plague prior to the invention of antibiotics or Ebola. But even with a low mortality rate, we’re still talking about millions of deaths and tens of millions constantly ill, meaning trillions in productivity lost every year if we decide to forgo quarantines and social distancing since the virus is extremely contagious during its lengthy and stealthy incubation. Its novelty means it takes a while for our immune systems to recognize it as a threat, causing a delayed immune response and onset of symptoms, and high success rates for viral particles to latch onto the proteins of our cells and start hijacking their machinery to reproduce.

And this brings us back to the other point we have to keep in mind when talking about reopening nations and economies. Things will not go back to normal at the drop of a hat. Businesses will not simply resume their operations as if someone pressed play on a paused video. Stocks will not instantly rebound. Even with our best efforts, the economy will be touch and go for years, partially because of its fragile state. Partly, it’s because we rely on incessant growth for the sake of growth to judge its strength and health and a clumsy Jenga of over-leveraged debts and massive inequality. But mostly it’s because people know there’s no going back to normal until we have the pandemic under control.

Mass events like sports and concerts will still take months to reopen since cramming tens of thousands of people in close quarters for hours while a contagious disease is still roaming the world is a recipe for disaster. People who don’t want to get sick will stay away from bars, malls, theaters, and restaurants. They’re also highly unlikely to take all those trips and vacations they were planning. Those who don’t care about the risk or are in denial of the disease will certainly go out, get sick, and some of them will die, convincing fence-sitters not to simply resume their normal routines as if nothing ever happened.

You can’t have the same level of economic activity when going out for prolonged periods of time and being around other people means an elevated risk of getting sick with a disease we’re still learning how to treat and against which we have no real safeguards. A lot of small businesses will close, unable to clear already thin profit margins. A lot of big businesses, feeling the dual pinch of revenue loss and shareholder rage will lay off hundreds of thousands. Until we have mass testing on the order of millions of kits processed every day, and each person is tested every two weeks — the average incubation period of COVID-19 — on the dot, there won’t even be a semblance of normalcy.

This is the realization right-wing pundits, conspiracy theorists, and denialists desperately want to avoid. That there is no going back. That they’re picking a fight with a force of nature, not just engaging in one of their petty partisan pissing contests. That an angry coronavirus capsid won’t sit in for a CNBC interview to deny that it’s engaging in “anti-free market class warfare” as they pile on, screaming one accusation after another at the top of their lungs, which is what so many cable networks pay them to do for a living. That they simply don’t know how to deal with a real problem they can’t defeat with their usual torrent of angry bullshit vomited at high speed and volume. And they desperately want to avoid this realization because of what it entails.

Why COVID-19 Should Make Us Rethink How We Measure Economic Success

Once you accept that all it takes is a single new disease to plunge the global economy into a deep recession, you have to accept that today’s system — the one they swore to defend against all ideological enemies — is just not built well enough to last and will require major rethinking. That what they’re rallying around is a house of cards and delusions in which all life is seen as either contributor, consumer, or acceptable collateral damage. And that they elevated a steady stream of arbitrary statistics invented to help us keep track of what we’re doing and why from an economic standpoint to the status of a nearly divine entity we must worship, and which may require a sacrifice — or a few million of them — once in a while.

It’s like carpenters convinced that their hammers are not just tools to build new houses but that they exist merely as tools to swing those hammers, and if these carpenters aren’t swinging the hammers, they are obsolete and must be discarded. Just imagine carpenters building house after house, ones nobody lives in, ones nobody really wants, then herding people inside to justify building more and more houses. When asked why, the carpenters reply “because our hammers must be swung more times than they were swung last week,” looking at you as if you’ve grown a third eye and a pair of horns for asking. It must be done, they may eventually say, because this is how it works, otherwise the world crumbles.

Of course, the existence of COVID-19 is not an argument for abandoning capitalism or the free market. To assume otherwise would be like our hypothetical carpenters rejecting hammers on the principle that all hammers are evil as proven by the existence of their hammer-worshipping colleagues. No, it’s an argument for re-evaluating our relationship with today’s systems of both economics and government. We invented these structures to be useful and serve our interests more efficiently, not the other way around. We need quality economists, quality politicians, and new metrics to track new goals, ones better suited for a post-industrial civilization rather than one still learning how to mass-produce things.

There’s a reason why we no longer gauge the strength of our economies based on how many bushels of corn and wheat we harvested, or how much livestock roams the land. They’re still an important component, but failing to grow more corn or having fewer heads of cattle won’t trigger a huge market drop if the needs of consumers are still being met. We need to do the same with manufacturing and services, and understand that there’s only so much stuff we can make and cram into our homes, and that we don’t need more stuff, we need better stuff and a purpose beyond making more stuff and keeping the system going so we can make and deliver yet more stuff we’ll end up quickly sending to the landfill while less and less cash ends up in our pockets at the end of the day.

If an existential threat of a disease and how easily it disrupted the modern world doesn’t make us question the wisdom of how we’ve been doing things for the last three decades, what will? If it doesn’t motivate us to make major changes and demand that we finally exile the grifters and morons who failed upwards into every position of power we can think of today, what can? This is why so many angry pundits want us to get back to work even if it kills us. The more we focus on survival and the busier we are with busywork, the less we think about whether the system we’re supposed to risk our lives for actually serves us and how we’d like to change it, and the more they can justify their intellectually inbred, self-serving dogmas.

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Opinion // Coronavirus / Donald Trump / Economy / Republican Party