The coronavirus pandemic is imposing perhaps the biggest challenge of our time. How will we react?
In order to flatten the curve (by slowing down the rate of infection) and therefore buy time for their healthcare systems, countries have been closing borders; shutting factories, markets, schools and places of worship; and ordering social distancing and national isolation. This is comprehensible and seems justified for now. But is it sustainable? Probably not.
The skyrocketing numbers of infected and dead show that the pandemic remains out of control, despite all the harsh measures that have been taken. And, to make the equation more complex, the measures that save lives now (by flattening the curve) also mean that the pandemic is not going anywhere soon. Specialists claim that it may be months or even years before life can return to anything close to normal. The economy—that is, people—cannot wait that long.
It may seem absurd to talk about the economy amidst all this horrible news. But we cannot afford not to. If political solutions are restricted to lockdowns—while we wait for vaccines and affordable treatments—coronavirus will soon be merely the tip of an iceberg.
Why the Economy Also Matters
As many economists and politicians have admitted, a recession now seems unavoidable. And there is no guarantee that fiscal and monetary policies, such as cutting taxes, drastically reducing interest rates and expanding the money supply, will be enough to spur investments and prevent a colossal downturn.
The current economy is service oriented and social distancing hits services particularly hard, which means that around three-quarters of all economic activity may come to an abrupt halt. Lasting confinement will make consumer spending dry up and, as a consequence, thousands of profitable business will close, especially the small ones, which won’t be able to survive with less cash in the bank and limited access to credit.
Even though bankruptcies and unemployment may appear to be minor inconveniences in the face of a pandemic that is killing thousands, if we do not take action to lessen the severity of the economic slowdown, it is not only the unemployed who will suffer, but the numerous people who earn large part of their income in tips. And, while some can afford to stock up on food and medication, millions rely on a limited monthly income to buy necessities. They will be exposed to shortages and deprivation in case of a persistent lockdown. That makes for an ugly picture.
The informal economy will be affected too. Hundreds of vendors compete for consumers in every sizeable city in the world and they are just the most visible element of a huge sphere of operations, which normally represents 8–25% of GDP and operates outside government oversight and regulation. These people count on their work on a daily basis. With no one on the streets, they have no work and therefore no money.
We should not understate the gravity of the health crisis or advocate herd immunity strategies. To the best of our knowledge, social distancing is the most effective measure to curb the spread of the virus.
However, locking down entire communities of millions of people and waiting for the storm to pass may prove unbearable in the long or even medium term. We need to find ways to fight this virus without destroying the social fabric, since the result of enduring draconian restrictions on public life might be deepening social and economic chaos.
What Can We Do?
During World War II, the British government printed 2.5 million copies of a poster with the inscription Keep Calm and Carry On. Maybe we need to channel a similar spirit, using more refined techniques.
We are living through a humanitarian catastrophe. It is unacceptable that more than 900 people died in one day alone, in Italy. Nevertheless, just as we must take early measures to curb the spread of the virus, we must act now to avoid a severe economic slump, which would be a social calamity. We need to Keep Calm and Be Smart.
For example, we know that the disease spreads exponentially, but there is no evidence of reinfection. Let’s use this in our favor. We cannot keep our children home forever, especially since people of that age group seem to be largely spared serious disease (so far there have been no deaths among children younger than ten and the only reported adolescent death was that of a fourteen-year-old boy in China). We should start identifying teachers who have been infected and are now immune, allowing them to return to their jobs, and we could do the same with other professionals and with workers in general. We could create a photo ID for people who are no longer infectious: an idea borrowed from epidemiologist Larry Brilliant, who helped eradicate smallpox fourteen years ago.
Public health and preventative medicine expert David L. Katz supports a more surgical strategy (targeted approach, risk-based or vertical interdiction), which would focus on protecting the elderly, people with chronic diseases and the immunologically compromised and imposing more lenient measures on everyone else and allowing them to work.
Perhaps there is no sense in keeping travel bans, particularly on travel from countries where the disease is not endemic to countries with community spread (the term for a situation in which infected individuals do not have a history of travel to a high-risk country or exposure to a known patient). Yuval Noah Harari has argued that it is time for an international agreement that allows people to travel after careful screening in their home countries.
Our main goal is to save as many lives as possible. But we need to try to do so without destroying our economies and social lives in the process. We need to figure out how not just to survive this virus, but how to win this battle.
Author’s note: medical oncologist Maysa Vilbert collaborated on this piece.