John Phipps: Saving People is Saving the Economy in COVID-19 Recovery

The enormous and growing cost of sheltering in place in order to prevent infection from COVID-19 is creating a vigorous debate about how and when to wind down isolation. Critics of strict contagion measures point out that the loss of economic activity also carries a human toll -   that people die from unemployment-related stress for example. Meanwhile, epidemiologists point out that without isolation measures the death rates would be much higher, so the true costs are difficult to compare.

What could eventually happen is pressure to restart the economy will overcome medical advice such that we get the worst of both worlds. We could have ongoing economic losses and continuing contagion. That outcome would not encourage economic activity, as people would have little confidence business could be carried out as before.

People versus business is a false choice. We have to save the people in order to save the economy. The idea of sacrificing a few for the good of the many has a strange parallel which should be familiar to farmers: international trade. Those of us who were proponents of open global trade overlooked that we were in essence doing a similar thing, that is sacrificing the way of life of some in exchange for great benefits for others. The analogy is not perfect of course because while jobs were lost, lives were not at risk. Nonetheless overlooking the cost to specific sectors as a result of foreign competition has proven to be a political and cultural blunder. And now this loss of international trade adds to the cost of COVID-19 since needed goods and services cannot get to where they would mitigate the effects of the infection.

In my opinion, our economy, like other advanced economies, is not faced with this either-or choice. We can and will find ways to resume economic activity as well as manage the problem of contagion. It will not be cheap or easy. And if we had only used this same strategy decades ago as global trade expanded, we would not only have less domestic rancor between sectors, but also have more tools such as stronger global cooperation at our disposal to manage our current crisis.

The needs of the many may truly outweigh the needs of the few, but we are not so impoverished as a nation or culture that we have to sacrifice one foe the other.


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