Across America people are consumed by dread, and not only by fear that someone they love will contract COVID-19. Yes, contracting the virus is scary. But many wonder when and if the terrible economic catastrophe will end. What will the world look like after the nationwide shutdown? Will their job still be there? Will their savings have evaporated? Will there be other profound public health consequences such as spikes in opioid use, depression and anxiety? Maybe most frightening, if things don’t improve soon, will our society devolve into chaos, tumult, and social unrest?
Here’s the bottom line: No one should panic. Although the lockdowns occurring in many areas of the country are essential, they need not be indefinite. Once we have additional expertise and equipment (masks, gloves, ventilators, and, most important, tests), we will be able to protect citizens and contain the spread even as commerce and the activities of civilization begin to hum again. We need not choose endlessly between preserving life and normality. In fact, America is poised to come roaring back once the crisis is over.
Look at what’s happening in Asia. With a sufficiently robust testing apparatus, we should be able to quickly and effectively isolate infected individuals such that not everyone will have to isolate. Soon enough, America should be able to provide drive-through testing operations that permit us to know with confidence who carries the disease (and therefore needs to be kept away from others), and who should feel confident circulating through society. There will be subsequent breakouts — but with improved medical protocols the public health system will be capable of keeping small outbreaks under control.
That then leaves the question of economic disruption. There’s no denying that the sudden shock has done long-term damage. But there are two factors at play here. The first involves how the federal government will work to reinforce the economy’s foundation such that it will not collapse. As the drama on Capitol Hill has revealed, Democrats and Republicans don’t necessarily agree on every aspect of the plan. But those who endure the molasses-like quality of policymaking will tell you that it’s simply remarkable that the parties managed to come together at all on a plan.
But perhaps an even more important factor, almost no matter what sort of relief packages Congress legislates and the president signs, is how long the current economic shutdown will last. Federal interventions can help ease the pain for a time. Businesses often can adjust to temporary disruptions. But an indefinite freeze on normal movement — even the prospect of a long-term shift — is likely to send the economy into a tailspin too powerful to be abated by any public intervention, fiscal or monetary. Yes, America needs more tests, masks, and ventilators. That’s the priority. But we also need some light at the end of the tunnel. Someone needs to paint a picture of how this ends.
The good news here is that, as South Korea’s experience makes clear, this virus is not going to win. COVID-19 is vulnerable to human interdiction, even if we have yet to produce the equipment and protocols required to give our public health system the ammunition it needs. Our country is not facing a binary choice between the imperatives of a healthy populace and a healthy economy. One is simply not possible without the other. Even if stemming the worst of the crisis needs to precede any talk of lifting restrictions on commercial life, the two should not be mutually exclusive.
The bottom line is that, in this tenuous moment, public perceptions play a crucial role. If people believe the virus is a hoax, they are less likely to stay home — and thereby would spread infection. But if people believe the economy will be frozen indefinitely — that there’s a possibility the current national lockdown could extend through the summer or even longer — that paralysis will make it harder for businesses to reopen and for people to go back to work. Let’s do what we need for public health, but let’s also talk publicly, without approbation, about how we come out of this mess sooner rather than later.
Our hearts should all go out to the families affected personally by infection. But as in previous national crises, Americans can honor those losses by recommitting ourselves to our national resolve. We are right to be horrified now — but we should take heart that things will get better. We simply need a plan a plan of action. Washington has its work cut out, but if it completes its tasks, our country can come out the other end stronger and more dynamic than ever.
Nancy Jacobson is a founder of No Labels, a national organization of Democrats, Republicans and independents dedicated to a new politics of problem solving.