President Trump sent out a tweet on Sunday night hinting that he’d like to end the shut downs once the initial 15-day period is over. Other members of his administration are saying it could still last another two or three months.
But the opinions of officials in the federal government probably don’t matter that much. State governments are free to keep their quarantines in place regardless of what Trump thinks. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has suggested that his state may remain in its locked down position for nine months. He says, insanely, that such a measure would be worth it “if it saves just one life.” Many local officials in many other states have made, or seem to have made (everything is covered in a layer of ambiguity and vagueness), similarly dire forecasts. And often offering similarly banal platitudes to justify the potential destruction of their economies.
Meanwhile, we’re now being warned that 30% unemployment is on the horizon. The collapse of the commercial mortgage market could be close behind. And these are just the relatively immediate consequences of closing thousands of businesses for an indefinite period of time. Keep in mind that the worst unemployment rate in American history was 25% during the Great Depression. The worst my generation has seen is 10%. This would be three times worse than we’ve ever seen, and 5% worse than anyone in American history has seen.
The hope, I suppose, is that the jobs will be there to return to once the government lets people go back to work. But that hope, as CNN might say, is unsubstantiated. Most small businesses can’t survive on zero revenue for very long, let alone months. Even the significantly larger companies won’t be able to make it through without serious downsizing.
And what will happen to people in the meantime? A large majority of Americans are already living paycheck to paycheck. How will they survive if the shut downs last for many weeks? How will they feed themselves and their kids? How will they pay the rent or the mortgage? Government stimulus checks can only go so far. Yes, send the checks, but that can’t be a new way of life. People need to work to care for themselves and their families. What happens when millions are prevented from doing so for a long stretch of time?
Well, nobody knows the answer to that question because nothing like this has ever happened. No government, as far as I’m aware, has ever willfully plunged itself into a depression, obliterating its own economy on purpose, in order to prevent some other potential calamity. If that is the route we go, we will be the first to try it. And I think there are many very good reasons to predict rather horrifying results for such an experiment.
Destitution and poverty on a massive scale. Looting. Rioting. Millions homeless. And that’s just the beginning. Remember that some of our major cities have, in recent history, been overtaken by anarchy and looting over a few allegedly unjust police shootings. What will happen in those cities after a month of government mandated quarantine?
I have supported the 15-day period that Trump initially proposed. But the notion that it will continue for exponentially longer than 15 days is lunacy. That option should not be on the table. We cannot open our arms and embrace exactly the kind of catastrophe that the shut downs are supposed to be preventing. Many lives will be ruined. The suffering will be incalculable.
I’m sure it will not be entirely “safe” to go back to work after 15 days — indeed I suspect 15 days was a somewhat arbitrary time frame to begin with — but we have no other choice if we want to preserve our civilization. Does that mean that we fling open our doors, run outside, and start infecting each other with abandon? No, of course not.
But maybe we could follow a plan kind of like this:
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.
I don’t know if this plan will solve the problem or not. I’m guessing this is one problem that cannot be “solved” so much as managed. But it seems that the absolute worst case — the virus spreads with a vengeance, millions die, hospitals are overwhelmed — could be feasibly avoided if all of these steps are followed. And even if it isn’t avoided, an argument could be made that such a catastrophe is still not quite as bad as the disaster that would follow if we destroy our economy and plunge millions into destitution all at once. At the very least, it seems smarter to try to avoid both outcomes than to purposefully bring about the one outcome in hopes of avoiding the other.
Take this with a grain of salt. I’m not an expert. Though, when it comes to navigating these uncharted waters, it’s becoming increasingly clear that nobody really is.