We have no choice. We have signed no informed consent forms and have no opportunity to say we aren’t comfortable having our lives subject to two inescapably intertwined global experiments — one in biology and another in economics.
But, like even the most lowly lab rat, each of us has some choice in which path to take through the maze.
With people at the top worried about the economy and people at the bottom suffering from, at best, cabin fever, pressure on governments, businesses and individuals to ease up on the stay-at-home and business-shutdown rules are immense.
Some of that agitation comes in the form of armed protests mounted by people who don’t give a whit about science or the safety of people other than themselves. They just want to be able to go to a bar and breathe on the waitress.
More of us are reasonably concerned about the long-term financial impact of closed restaurants, theaters and stores and the towering unemployment numbers that can do nothing but ripple through the economy.
The challenge here is to manage what we can manage and understand that, in many ways, it is the COVID-19 virus, and not any human being, that is setting the ground rules.
Presidents, prime ministers, governors and mayors around the world are looking to balance the demand to reopen the economy with the need to fight off the spread of a deadly virus, at a time when we don’t fully understand how to do either, and certainly not how to do both at once.
One fact that must be grasped is that, while governments can order people to close their businesses and stay home, they cannot effectively or ethically order businesses to reopen, command workers to report for their shifts and, most beyond the control of any authority, demand that shoppers and diners show up.
The steps of reopening can be allowed, not forced. And even where they are pursued, needs and options will not be the same everywhere. Cities with densely packed populations are more likely to be overwhelmed by the spread of the virus. But there are also risks in small communities, where medical services are limited and the nearest ICU bed may be hours away.
There are things we can do collectively. Test, trace and isolate regimes need to be stepped up and freely funded. Government funds must flow from the bottom up, in the form of extended and expanded unemployment benefits, and from the top down, in the form of payroll and expense protection for businesses. The resulting public debt will be immense but, with current interest rates basically zero, it will do far less ongoing damage to the economy than the only alternative, which is to stand by and watch everything freeze up.
The argument that unemployment or other benefits for workers only reward laziness is a King Louis XVI idea that we just do not have time for. No worker who feels unsafe should have to choose between returning to a job or paying their rent. And a premature or sloppy reopening will certainly cause a second — or third — wave of pandemic that will cripple the economy beyond any government’s poor power to add or detract.
Individually, we can all help. Limit excursions from home. Wear masks. Avoid crowds. Don’t assume that just because you don’t feel sick that you aren’t a vector of disease. Put the common good ahead of your own needs — or, at least, ahead of your own wants.
After a key Allied victory in World War II, Winston Churchill famously said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
We are not even that far.
Every step forward must be carefully measured, based on the best knowledge we can muster and taken with an awareness that it things can get much, much worse if we aren’t careful.