A brief history of the past four months in America:
Experts: Don’t rush to reopen, this isn’t over.
Donald Trump: LIBERATE!
Trump officials: Here’s our opposition research on Anthony Fauci.
And we are now faced with an agonizing choice: Do we reopen schools, creating risks of a further viral explosion, or do we keep children home, with severe negative effects on their learning?
None of this had to happen. Other countries stuck with their lockdowns long enough to reduce infections to rates much lower than those prevailing here; COVID-19 death rates per capita in the European Union are only a 10th those in the United States — and falling — while ours are rising fast. As a result, they are in a position to reopen schools fairly safely.
And the experience of the Northeast, the first major epicenter of the U.S. pandemic, shows that we could have achieved something similar here. Death rates are way down, although still higher than in Europe; on Saturday, for the first time since March, New York City reported zero COVID-19 deaths.
Would a longer lockdown have been economically sustainable? Yes.
It is true that strong social distancing requirements led to high unemployment and hurt many businesses. But even America, with its ramshackle social safety net, was able to provide enough disaster relief — don’t call it stimulus! — to protect most of its citizens from severe hardship.
Thanks largely to expanded unemployment benefits, poverty did not soar during the lockdown. By some measures it may even have gone down.
True, there were holes in that safety net, and many people did suffer. But we could have patched those holes. Yes, emergency relief costs a lot of money, but we can afford it: The federal government has been borrowing huge sums, but interest rates have remained near historical lows.
Put it this way: At its most severe, the lockdown seems to have reduced GDP by a little over 10%. During World War II, America spent more than 30% of GDP on defense, for more than three years. Why couldn’t we absorb a much smaller cost for a few months?
So doing what was necessary to bring the coronavirus under control would have been annoying, but entirely feasible.
But that was the road not taken. Instead, many states not only rushed to reopen, they reopened stupidly. Instead of being treated as a cheap, effective way to fight contagion, face masks became a front in the culture war. Activities that posed an obvious risk of feeding the pandemic went unchecked: Large gatherings were permitted, bars reopened.
And the cost of those parties and open bars extends beyond the thousands of Americans who will be killed or suffer permanent health damage as a result of COVID-19′s resurgence. The botched reopening has also endangered something that, unlike drinking in groups, can’t be suspended without doing long-run damage: in-person education.
Some activities hold up fairly well when moved online. I suspect that there will be a lot fewer people flying cross-country to stare at PowerPoints than there were pre-COVID, even once we finally beat this virus.
Education isn’t one of those activities. We now have overwhelming confirmation of something we already suspected: For many, perhaps most students there is no substitute for actually being in a classroom.
But rooms full of students are potential petri dishes, even if the young are less likely to die from COVID-19 than the old. Other countries have managed to reopen schools relatively safely — but they did so with much lower infection rates than currently prevail in America, and with adequate testing, which we still don’t have in many hot spots.
So we are now facing a terrible, unnecessary dilemma. If we reopen in-person education, we risk feeding an out-of-control pandemic. If we don’t, we impair the development of millions of American students, inflicting long-term damage on their lives and careers.
And the reason we are in this position is that states, cheered on by the Trump administration, rushed to allow large parties and reopen bars. In a real sense America drank away its children’s future.
Now what? At this point there are probably as many infected Americans as there were in March. So what we should be doing is admitting that we blew it, and doing a severe lockdown all over again — and this time listening to the experts before reopening. Unfortunately, it is now too late to avoid disrupting education, but the sooner we deal with this the sooner we can get our society back on track.
But we don’t have the kind of leaders we need. Instead, we have the likes of Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, politicians who refuse to listen to experts and never admit having been wrong.
So while there have been a few grudging policy adjustments, the main response we are seeing to colossal policy failure is a hysterical attempt to shift the blame. Some officials are trying to blacken Fauci’s reputation; others are diving into unhinged conspiracy theories.
As a result, the outlook is grim. This pandemic is going to get worse before it gets better, and the nation will suffer permanent damage.
Paul Krugman, Ph.D., winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.