Sending People Back to Work Now Will Not Save the Economy. It Will Doom It.

Donald Trump gestures while speaking in the White House Briefing Room.
President Donald Trump during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus at the White House on Sunday. Eric Baradat/Getty Images

President Donald Trump is already having second thoughts about telling Americans to stay at home in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus, because he is worried about how badly it will hurt the economy (and, presumably, the Dow). The president reportedly began talking privately about “reopening” the country as early as last week. He’s also being nudged in that direction by conservative pundits, advisers within his own administration, and Wall Street figures who have urged a quick return to normalcy, in order to limit the blow to businesses and workers. And so we got this all-caps pronouncement on Sunday:

This is an extremely dangerous line of thinking, and not just because it will likely lead to more casualties. Encouraging Americans back to work before the virus is contained will not save the economy from catastrophe. Rather, it will set the country up to limp along, half-functioning as the pandemic spreads further. As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes put it:

Let’s recall why public health officials have asked Americans to stay home in the first place. It’s not because COVID-19 is incredibly deadly (though it does appear to be more fatal than the flu). Rather, it’s because the new coronavirus is so highly contagious that if even a small percentage of the people who stand to be infected end up hospitalized, it will completely swamp our health care system, as already seems to be happening in New York. If even 20 percent of Americans catch this thing in the next year—which is the sort of best-case scenario researchers are envisioning—vast swaths of the country will run out of hospital beds. We will not have enough room in intensive care units or available ventilators to properly care for the ill. Heck, we already don’t have enough masks. Lots of people with COVID-19 will likely die because there simply will not be space or resources to keep them alive. People with other serious conditions will die as well, because they too will not be able to get care. All sorts of acute illnesses will become more deadly.

Many people will not return to their normal lives in a country that is being ravaged by an unchecked disease just because the president has announced a “reopening.” Many aren’t going to return to restaurants and bars or go on family vacations to Disney. Many companies aren’t going to tell their employees to come back to the office. Many cities and states will keep businesses shut down in order to try to contain the illness as much as possible within their own borders. But some won’t. And many Americans will try to resume life as usual, the same way many are ignoring the warnings to stay in now, which means the virus will continue spreading. We will have a half-functioning economy and nonfunctioning health care system, with untold numbers of Americans dying from an illness that causes victims to suffocate as fluid floods into their lungs, on the way to total organ failure.

Avoiding that nightmare will require more dramatic actions than we have taken so far, not more restraint. So far, the Trump administration has not really tried to coordinate a national lockdown. Instead, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued some toothless public guidelines urging Americans to stay home for 15 days to “Do Your Part to Slow the Spread of Coronavirus,” like it was reminding campers to prevent forest fires. This has left states to decide their own paths forward. Schools are shut down across almost the entire country, thankfully. But so far, only some states have issued stay-at-home orders and are closing nonessential businesses. That patchwork approach to combating the disease means we’re unlikely to contain it nationwide. Meanwhile, we’re already facing an unprecedented economic downturn, with potentially millions of layoffs.

The more sensible approach to taming this virus and saving our economy would be to orchestrate an actual nationwide lockdown for at least three or four weeks while the government essentially pays everybody’s bills (see: the economic aid bill Congress is working on). During that time, the country could ramp up production of tests and ventilators, and put in place measures necessary to set up an effective regime of testing people suspected of being ill and tracing their contacts, which appears to have worked in both South Korea and Taiwan. We’d face a dramatic economic downturn, yes. But we might also enjoy a relatively quick, V-shaped recovery as life returned to some semblance of normality.

The coronavirus crisis is going to create a severe economic hardship. There’s no escaping that. The question is whether it will be a short-lived disaster that we can begin pulling ourselves out of with the help of a serious public health mobilization, or if it will be a long, lingering horror we muddle through as people die. The fact that Trump is already having doubts about the half-measures he took last week unfortunately suggests he doesn’t have the stomach or foresight to pick the right course, because he’s too worried about the daily fluctuations of the stock market. Instead, he’s steering us toward a long pandemic and a depression all at once.

For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to Monday’s episode of The Gist.