Covid-19 is deadly, and so is keeping millions of people out of work

To be open or closed, that is the question in Covid-19.
To be open or closed, that is the question in Covid-19.
Image: AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
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These days, it seems every governor, as Politico founding editor John F. Harris recently wrote, “is navigating a zone of uncertainty and competing goals” during this crisis.

No matter what the goal is, the most any political decision maker can do right now is follow the advice of experts—like director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Anthony Fauci or US Global AIDS Coordinator Deborah Birx, who have provided a three-phase plan to get America back to work again—and make state-by-state decisions accordingly.

Let me preface this article by saying I’m not a doctor, nor an expert on infectious diseases—I’m a writer and a small business owner—so I cannot scientifically speak to when or how governors should begin safely reopening the US economy. Yet I remain puzzled by anyone trying to characterize all leaders who want to reopen the economy as favoring money over life.

It’s complicated

Anyone who tries to oversimplify reopening the economy in this way simply doesn’t understand what’s really at stake. Perhaps Reuters journalists M.B. Pell and Benjamin Lesser said it best: “While it’s become popular to warn against placing economic concerns over health on the front lines of public health, the two are inexorably linked.”

Yes, the way we all approach work in the months and years to come will need to change. New safety measures and considerations for workers’ health will need to be defined and enforced. There’s no denying the risks and dangers of impeding the spread of a virus like Covid-19. But a total economic shutdown comes with dangers and risks of mass death tolls of its own.

Deathly consequences

A recent New York Times article quoted a Delhi, India worker stating, “Instead of coronavirus, the hunger will kill us.” The piece reported that around 265 million people around the world could face starvation by the end of the year, and that measures like strict stay-at-home orders are “drying up work and incomes, and are likely to disrupt agricultural production and supply routes.” As bad as millions of people starving to death may be, it’s only one of many other consequences that are likely to arise from a prolonged total economic shutdown.

Another is increased death and abuse in the home. TIME magazine recently published a report saying domestic abuse cases are tripling in China as “a result of enforced lockdown.” Other reports detail how domestic abuse killings have been “more than double” in the period of pandemic lockdown.

According to research at Oxford University, suicide rates rise about 1% for every percentage point increase in unemployment. Based on data from the last recession, Oxford researcher Aaron Reeves told Reuters, “I think there is a good chance we could see twice as many suicides over the next 24 months than we saw during the early part of the last recession.” That means keeping the economy shut could add 20,000 additional deaths by suicide on top of the estimated 48,000 Americans who already die by suicide each year .

Another unintended consequence of strict economic shutdowns is that the same health departments whose providers work day in and day out to prevent deaths from a range of causes, from measles to heart disease to the season flu, will see their future efforts severely crippled as a direct result of a long-term, indefinite shutdown. One study concluded that after the 2008 recession, local health departments in the US lost more than 23,000 positions as a result of budget cuts.

There’s also the consideration of how disrupting the supply chain of vital medications could jeopardize the lives of countless patients living with long-term serious health concerns. As investor and founder of global asset management firm Research Affiliates Rob Arnott discussed recently, the US has about 30 million Americans currently diagnosed with heart disease, 34 million with diabetes, and 35 million have a chronic preventable lung disease. About 1.8 million Americans are diagnosed with cancer each year. “Given the overlap between these groups,” Arnott  wrote, “around 70-80 million Americans are being treated for one or more of these ailments. If one in a hundred of them die because they can’t get their medicine, or the hospitals can’t take them, there’s another 750,000 deaths.”

As the nation pivots to triage treatment for the rapid spread of Covid-19, other ongoing conditions, such as the deadly opioid epidemic, continue. Limiting resources for people who suffer from addiction and treat patients for addiction, for example, will likely only exacerbate the death toll. Some fear that the number of deaths—some 450,000 Americans died of accidental overdoses from 1999 to 2018—could soon spike significantly as a result of lockdowns. “Addiction and recovery advocates say the US is now battling two epidemics at once,” as Daily Beast reporter Kate Briquelet wrote .

It’s easy to paint a decision to close or reopen a given market as partisan and to cast aspersions against political opponents accordingly. But the situation is far more complicated than that, and failing to acknowledge the many factors involved does us all a disservice. In the end, those who favor keeping the economy shut down indefinitely in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus may inadvertently do more harm in the long run—despite all noble intentions.