We’re all going to hear this phrase again and again: “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.”
That’s what President Trump said at Monday’s briefing, and it reflects a major shift in his thinking, amplified by conservative commentators but also some on the left.
It’s also pretty unnerving.
The argument is that shutting down much of the economy is so drastic that the damage will be irreversible -- and that this could also hurt people’s health care if millions more lose their jobs.
The president, comparing the situation to the seasonal flu, declared in a Fox town hall interview Tuesday that if America remains closed for business, “You’re going to lose people. You’re going to have suicides by the thousands.”
But medical experts are urging the administration to stay the course, saying the death toll from the coronavirus could skyrocket if the country starts reopening businesses and schools and people again start congregating in close quarters.
As the New York Times puts it, “Relaxing those restrictions could significantly increase the death toll from the virus, public health officials warn. Many economists say there is no positive trade-off — resuming normal activity prematurely would only strain hospitals and result in even more deaths, while exacerbating a recession that has most likely already arrived.”
Clearly the financial impact, with some projecting a 30 percent shrinkage of the economy and unemployment soaring to 13 percent, is frightening. And the president, who is running for reelection, is obviously concerned by a stock market that has plummeted by one-third. That’s despite yesterday’s gains as Congress closed in on a $2-trillion bailout plan.
Just over a week after much of the country went into virtual lockdown, especially such states as New York, California, Illinois and Virginia, Trump is looking at easing the restrictions when the current 15-day period expires next Monday--even though the virus in America is at more than 40,000 cases and rising.
“Our country wasn’t built to be shut down,” Trump said. "America will, again, and soon, be open for business. Very soon.”
The Washington Post says the president “has received urgent pleas from rattled business leaders, Republican lawmakers and conservative economists imploring him to remove some of the stringent social distancing guidelines that he put in place.”
Here’s the case from Fox’s Steve Hilton, one of a number of conservative pundits arguing that we’ve gone too far: “Quite frankly, if they keep up the shutdowns until the end of May, they'll need $5 trillion; if it's in August, $12 trillion. This is an inconceivable amount of public money. It amounts to a total government takeover of the economy...Don't turn a public health crisis into America's worst catastrophe.”
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, 69, went so far as to suggest that older people--who are in the highest-risk group--should be willing to die to protect the young. “No one reached out to me and said, as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren? And if that's the exchange, I'm all in,” he said on Fox.
But NYU bioethics professor Arthur Caplan is making the counter-argument, telling the Times: “You can’t call off the best weapon we have, which is social isolation, even out of economic desperation, unless you’re willing to be responsible for a mountain of deaths...Can’t we try to put people’s lives first for at least a month?”
And Joe Biden said yesterday on “The View” that “I don’t agree with the notion that somehow it’s okay to let people die.”
Yet this is not just a save-business-first campaign by the right. Andrew Cuomo, who is basking in praise for his blunt briefings from Albany, said at Monday’s session that “you can’t stop the economy forever.” The New York governor said “we have to start to think about does everyone stay out of work? Should young people go back to work sooner? Can we test for those who had the virus, resolved, and are now immune and can they start to go back to work?” Cuomo said yesterday that if the two priorities collide, public health must come first.
These are the very questions the White House is examining.
Liberal Times columnist Tom Friedman, a fierce Trump critic, asks whether we can “more surgically minimize the threat of this virus to those most vulnerable while we maximize the chances for as many Americans as possible to safely go back to work as soon as possible.”
After interviewing many leading experts, the three-time Pulitzer winner concludes: “Either we let many of us get the coronavirus, recover and get back to work — while doing our utmost to protect those most vulnerable to being killed by it. Or, we shut down for months to try to save everyone everywhere from this virus — no matter their risk profile — and kill many people by other means, kill our economy and maybe kill our future.”
My own view is that there’s a reason that Britain and India, which had resisted such drastic steps, have just ordered a three-week lockdown. And there’s a reason such medical veterans as Anthony Fauci are saying it’s too soon to lift the restrictions for at least several more weeks.
Given that hospitals are starting to be overwhelmed and still don’t have enough masks, ventilators and respirators, it could be a catastrophic mistake to take steps that could overwhelm them with an even bigger surge of virus patients. Cuomo said yesterday that the rate of infection in New York, the virus epicenter, is doubling about every three days. He said the state, which has 53,000 hospital beds, now needs 140,000, and that the feds must order ventilators into production.
But Trump, and to some extent Cuomo, are right: we can’t shut down the economy indefinitely. The question is how to balance the twin crises of medical health and financial health in ways that do the least harm to each one.