I read an interesting article the other day about how to get the economy back up and running — and, not incidentally, about understanding why the economy ground to a halt in the first place. The article contends that it really wasn’t governmental shutdown orders that did the significant damage — it was fear.
Once people started to accept that the coronavirus really was serious and dangerous, and not just some grossly exaggerated boogeyman like so many over-hyped diseases of past years, they stopped doing what they were doing — even before government orders took effect, and even as to conduct that government orders still permit. And when the American consumer, the primary cog in the greatest economic engine in the history of the world, decides to change course, as a group, the consequences are profound. The dominoes started falling, businesses saw sharp drop-offs in orders, and the unemployment rate ratcheted upward to levels we haven’t seen since the Great Depression.
And that’s where we are. There’s still a lot of fear out there — among some people, at least — and that needs to be dealt with as part of the reopening process. The author of the piece linked above contends that what we really need to deal with that general sense of fear is widespread availability of protective masks, and also widespread availability of reliable COVID-19 testing. The masks may have a good effect toward preventing transmission of the disease when people are out in public, but they also may just make people feel safer, more secure, and more willing to go out to a store rather than ordering everything they might need through Amazon Prime. Masks thus may have a tangible public health effect, but also a kind of calming placebo effect. Some of the other steps that governmental guidance has outlined for reopening businesses — like having people coming to work take their temperatures — also seems like it will help to build confidence that going out in public doesn’t involve crushing risk.
The testing is equally important, because it might finally provide us with the data that will give us a real sense of just what the coronavirus is, how many people have it or have already had it, and what its mortality rate truly is. And while it might be fun, politically, to castigate our political leaders for not having millions of tests readily available for a disease that was totally unknown until a few months ago, I don’t see the value in playing the blame game. Once most testing is done — and particularly more random testing of the general population, rather than testing only those people who already are in extremis physically — we’ll have a better sense of the real risks of a return to normalcy.
For all of the scary headlines about mounting death tolls, there are tantalizing indications in some of the general testing of certain populations that has been done that the coronavirus is far more widespread that health authorities have believed, and that the vast majority of the cases don’t cause serious health issues. According to the CDC website, accessed today, the people who are really at risk seem to be senior citizens — especially those in certain nursing homes — and people with significant, pre-existing medical conditions, like respiratory illness, compromised immunity systems, or morbid obesity. If general testing is done and it confirms that the real risk of coronavirus is limited to certain vulnerable populations, then we can step to provide protections specifically designed for those populations — and people who don’t fall into those high-risk populations can start to go about their business. That concept, not incidentally, will require the news media to accurately report boring test data, rather than focusing on death counts. When scary headlines are producing lots of clicks and website traffic, that might be asking for a lot.
One of our greatest Presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, famously told the American people in the midst of the Great Depression that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” That admonition seems apt as we move into the post-shutdown phase of the Great Coronavirus Crisis of 2020. If we’re going to get the economy going, help people who have been thrown out of work, and bring the unemployment rate down, a lot of frightened people are going to have to conquer their fears and accept the risks inherent with doing things like shopping and eating in public. Having better data — and better reporting of data — will help.