The debate over the coronavirus response seems to be centered around a false dilemma. We are told, mostly by left-wing media personalities, that the choice is either to slow the spread of the virus or not slow it, take it seriously or not take it seriously. According to this version, those advocating a protracted, economy-ruining, nationwide shut down are on the side of taking the disease seriously and slowing the spread. Those who feel apprehensive about intentionally plunging into another Great Depression are on the side of not taking the disease seriously and doing nothing whatsoever to slow its spread.
The caricaturing of the Let’s Not Destroy The Economy side gets even more absurd. Those of us on that end of the spectrum are accused of “putting the economy over people.” We are embracing “mass death” and consigning our grandmothers to the morgue. As one media guy put it to me, we “have a hard-on for mass murder.”
I can’t help but notice that nearly everyone making these points (though “points” may be too generous a term) is currently employed. They enjoy their uninterrupted income streams as they accuse out of work retail clerks and waitresses of being greedy money grubbers for wanting to earn a paycheck again to feed their families.
Of course, the whole notion that “people” and “economy” are two separate categories, and that one must choose between preserving the former or the latter, is ludicrous. The economy is people. When the economy crashes, people’s lives crash. If the economy is in ruins, people’s lives are in ruins. The argument is that tearing our economy to pieces will come at a cost — a human cost, not just an abstract economic cost — that is too great to pay. Perhaps this argument is wrong. But, wrong or right, any rational person can see that it is not an argument for devaluing human life. The disagreement is over the best, most ethical, most prudent way to preserve human life. The disagreement is not whether lives should be preserved in the first place.
And that brings us to the false dilemma I mentioned at the start. I have not seen any prominent person advocate that we throw these quarantines to the side all at once and get back to business as if everything is perfectly normal. I have not see anyone suggest that no measures be taken to address the pandemic or protect ourselves against it. There are a whole list of practical and effective (to what degree, I don’t know and neither does anybody else) measures that could be put in place while also salvaging what’s left of our economy. We have chosen to slow the spread by shutting everything down. That is not the only potential method.
What other methods might we choose? I already suggested a few:
1) Open the economy back up. Let young and healthy people work and feed their families.
2) Encourage masks, or even require them, for certain industries where transmission might be especially likely.
3) Keep nursing homes quarantined.
4) Tell other at-risk people to remain in their homes for now.
5) Test aggressively and quarantine the infected.
6) Provide financial relief to at-risk people who cannot work.
7) Continued quarantines for specific regions where the outbreak is especially bad.
My suggestions certainly are not novel or very creative. I’m sure if smarter people than myself got to work thinking of solutions that don’t involve willful economic suicide, they could come up with some better ones. We are a nation of problem solvers. And good problem solvers find solutions that don’t create worse problems than they were meant to solve.
The strategies suggested above would certainly slow the spread to some extent. Would they slow it enough? I don’t know. Is their chance of slowing the spread good enough to justify opening up the economy to stave off a historic collapse that would ruin many millions of lives? I think so. Again, I could be wrong. But this is the argument I’d be wrong about. I would not be wrong that the virus is no big deal and therefore nothing should be done to fight it, because that is not an argument I am making or anyone else is making.
Enough with the caricatures and false dichotomies. This problem is too serious for those kinds of games.