Leadership Means Reopening America Now

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It’s increasingly clear that the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak is not the doomsday event alarmists made it out to be. At least that’s the emerging public health reality; the scope of our self-inflicted economic catastrophe has yet to be determined. 

Even though deaths attributed to coronavirus hit a new high each day, one can begin to make out what is perhaps the top of the bell curve of mortality that tracks every disease outbreak.

The daily number of new cases has been relatively steady in the 25,000-35,000 range for the past week. Even if the 400,000 total U.S. cases and 15,000 total deaths double, triple, or quadruple before the disease runs its course, the outbreak will still be less severe than the tough 2014-15 flu season, in which 34 million Americans contracted the flu, 710,000 were hospitalized, and approximately 56,000 died.

This reality contrasts with projections developed by the Centers for Disease Control, which had indicated the disease would kill 140,000 to 200,000 Americans. Even more exaggerated was a scary prediction from the Imperial College of London that 2.2 million Americans might die. Forecasts that many hospitals would overflow have also been wrong.

Discrediting these estimates is not an exercise in Monday morning quarterbacking: The disease’s course in the advanced, free nations hit first in East Asia such as Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan revealed a dangerous but manageable outbreak that was controlled without the extreme economic shutdown we have adopted in the United States.

But perhaps the most telling statistic is that about half of the total cases and deaths have occurred within the broader New York metropolitan area. Remove that outbreak hotspot from the picture and one is left with 6,000 premature deaths of mostly elderly individuals with underlying health conditions in a country of 327 million. Each of these deaths is a personal tragedy for the families and communities involved and, of course, the victim. But this toll is being surmounted by an even heavier economic impact that itself will harm and shorten lives dramatically. 

Governors who heeded  public health officials have locked down all but eight U.S. states. The eight “holdouts,” as they are derided, have all put in place measures to slow the virus’s inevitable spread, but declined to take the additional economy-killing step of ordering all but non-essential workers to stay at home.

So far, these lockdowns have contributed to 10 million newly unemployed Americans, with perhaps twice that many joining their ranks in the coming weeks. The loss in economic output this quarter will be worse than any since the Great Depression. Stocks have lost nearly a third of their value.

The toll from this economic carnage will be significant. Suicides will be the most obvious cost, but those made poorer will also defer important health care, delay retirement, take fewer vacations, refuse to invest, drive older cars with fewer safety features, have worse nutrition, forgo having children, limit heat and air conditioning, and face a number of other factors that impact health and quality of life.  

Throughout this crisis, President Trump has taken aggressive steps to protect the public’s health. He bucked the views of the corrupt World Health Organization and politicians like Joe Biden by halting flights from China before the crisis was apparent. His Coronavirus Task Force has been helping governors deal with the burden the virus has placed on states – New York in particular – while his administration has slashed red tape to field life-saving equipment and new therapies.

But Trump also rightly observed more than two weeks ago that “the cure cannot be worse than the disease.” His economic adviser Larry Kudlow said on Tuesday that the economy can reopen in four to eight weeks. That would be a pointless delay for low-incidence areas that comprise most of the country. Now is the time to get America back to work.

Specifically, Trump must give pro-business governors the political space to reopen their states and get people back to work. He also needs realistic economic and health officials who can attest to the safety of reopening businesses for low-risk individuals in geographies that don’t have New York-style outbreaks.

Businesses themselves will go the extra mile to help. To woo back customers, restaurants will space out their diners and spread out mealtimes with multiple seatings. Construction and factory workers can maintain separation when doing so is safe and practical, and otherwise rely on masks and frequent hand sanitization. Businesses, schools, and public venues can check temperatures of workers, students, and customers and send home those with symptoms. These entrepreneurial steps to improved health are already on display in places like Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong. American businesses will do just as well.  

Earlier this week at a task force press briefing at the White House, President Trump declared, “We built the greatest economy in the world. I'll do it a second time.”  There’s no time to waste, Mr. President. Reopen the economy now.

Christian Whiton was a senior adviser in the Trump and George W. Bush administrations. He is a senior fellow at the Center for the National Interest.



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