March 26, 2020

BARAN | The Cure

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In the 1950s and 60s, thousands of babies in Germany and other European countries were born with major birth defects because their mothers had taken a drug called thalidomide. Thalidomide was used to treat a variety of conditions, including nausea in pregnant women. The drug was not tested on pregnant women. In other words, officials rashly applied a treatment without considering other possible effects. Thalidomide certainly helped with nausea, but at a terrible price. The cure was worse than the problem.

On Monday, President Trump warned that the same might now be true for the measures in place to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Trump expressed worries that the detriments of a sputtering economy would outweigh those brought on by re-opening the country amid a global health crisis. In an opinion that has become moderately internet-famous, the President advocates that the U.S. go back to business as usual by April 12.

Although Trump is no way an expert on these matters, especially since he’s ignoring his advisors in pushing these agendas, his words got me thinking: What are the consequences of a nationwide quarantine? Do they hold a candle to the consequences of not completely quarantining?

The national shutdown so far has undoubtedly done much good for the public health of America. It’s imparted to citizens the magnitude of the problem, kept the disease from spreading out of control and given the government time to collect itself and continue to strategize.

With all of those benefits come hefty economic costs. Despite federal expenditures, a recession is almost inevitable, and the severity only increases the longer the shutdown lasts. As economic activity grinds to a halt, millions will lose their jobs. Small businesses will not be able to stay afloat. The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board urges a new approach towards fighting the pandemic, one that doesn’t mean economic ruin for our country:

“…no society can safeguard public health for long at the cost of its overall economic health. Even America’s resources to fight a viral plague aren’t limitless—and they will become more limited by the day as individuals lose jobs, businesses close, and American prosperity gives way to poverty. America urgently needs a pandemic strategy that is more economically and socially sustainable than the current national lockdown.”

It is important to think about how the current strategy may not be the optimal one. It is entirely possible that a complete breakdown of the normal workings of society and the economy will prove worse than any toll the virus could inflict upon us. That is not a popular opinion, but it doesn’t deserve unilateral condemnation.

A few nights ago I was watching the news with my mother. An older business owner came on for an interview. The man said he was willing to take the risk of infection to ensure that his kids didn’t have to enter the workforce in a recession. He urged leaders to allow a return to the workforce. Although we should applaud that man’s selflessness, no one is advocating a complete return to the workforce.

So, there must be a middle ground between a complete shutdown and a return to normalcy. One opinion article in the New York Times proposes such a plan. The author essentially argues for protecting and isolating the vulnerable while allowing some of the general population to return to work:

“This focus on a much smaller portion of the population would allow most of society to return to life as usual and perhaps prevent vast segments of the economy from collapsing. Healthy children could return to school and healthy adults go back to their jobs. Theaters and restaurants could reopen, though we might be wise to avoid very large social gatherings like stadium sporting events and concerts.”

This middle ground seems to prevent the consequences of a prolonged shutdown while keeping important public health measures in place. We, the younger generations, have little credibility within this dilemma. Many of our peers ignored and continue to ignore guidance from public health experts regarding social distancing and travel. The rest of the population may think we don’t care as much because most of us are not at high risk of death. We have to show them we care, and more, that we want what is best for our country, by supporting middle ground plans like these.

We may come to a point months in the future when, in the midst of the worst recession in decades, we look back and say: ‘Well, we did the best we could.’ We will look at the masses of destitute small-business owners and jobless college graduates and say:  ‘At least you survived.’ But did we make the best choice? We’ll never know, unless our government explores other options.

Christian Baran is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at cbaran@cornellsun.com. Honestly runs every other Friday this semester.