Donald Trump, known for both mismanagement and catch phrases, displayed both of those talents recently by popularizing the extremely silly perspective on COVID-19 that “the cure cannot be worse than the problem itself”. His implication was that the damage and death toll from crashing markets resulting from a lockdown might be more damaging than the death toll from Coronavirus. Unfortunately, the idea is a falsehood in the first place; any response or strategic planning surrounding COVID-19 that does not involve lockdowns and eradicating the disease will make matters worse.
This is not an opinion. It is a fact. It’s an obvious one at that. All economic damage is worsened by a deadly disease. Hours and time are lost when people are sick. We move more slowly, forget more things, do our tasks sloppily, reducing efficiency and increasing duplication of work. We get more people in our hospital system; the system is more likely to crash. Families are more likely to lose breadwinners to the disease. We strain our short supply of medical resources. We lose more healthcare workers.
But if one needs more “expert” analysis to understand this better as opposed to me simply drawing out more scenarios, take it from the economists.
Not just some of them.
All of them.
A panel put together by Chicago Booth of many of the leading economists from institutions around the United States unanimously agreed that ending lockdowns early would result in worse economic fallout than waiting through the appropriate amount of time. Confidence in that assertion was almost unanimously beyond uncertainty, too.
As Professor Neale Mahone puts it:
So why is there so much discussion of trade-offs? I’m worried that the debates are not about real economic trade-offs but instead are about shortsightedness, or providing a fig leaf for corporate cronyism.
Those who think we should start relaxing coronavirus-suppression measures such as shelter-in-place orders are severely shortsighted. There are no reasonable discount rates whereby the economic benefits of lifting such measures now can be rationalized relative to the harm experienced in future months from the increased spread of the disease.
Some might counter that the lockdown itself has economic costs that would go unseen otherwise, but each of these considerations are made worse by COVID-19.
Worried about depression and suicide from isolation? Isolation will have to return to the standard as people die, and more people dying will lead to worse depression.
Worried about riots and crime waves? Consider riots and crime waves with even more people sick and dying on both the offender side and the victim side of the equation.
Worried about small businesses going under? Imagine what happens when their staff and consumers get sick, die, or have to take care of others who are sick and dying.
There is no scenario whereby we end the lockdowns and improve our status as a result.
The argument has other, glaring issues, at face value, starting but not nearly ending with the way it treats human beings. Weighing our death tolls in one situation versus our pocketbook in an alternative scenario, as many are doing in weighing public health against the almighty dollar, is undoubtedly immoral.
But even if we are to accept the premise that there might be some amount of money that’s worth it, it’s not an option for us. There is no cure worse than the disease. There are only boneheaded false hope attempts to cure the disease, and actual cures that minimize the damage and get us back on our feet faster. The former will bankrupt and kill more people. The latter is our only option, and will saves lives by both beating Coronavirus and restoring markets as quickly as possible.