The state and national economies are experiencing a crisis like few we’ve ever seen. As workers stay home and businesses close, demand in some industries has dropped to near zero. While some companies can weather the hit, others are already in trouble, with catastrophic unemployment numbers reported on Thursday and the potential for lasting damage growing by the week.
The seriousness of the situation, especially in a state like Connecticut that was already in a precarious situation, has some commentators claiming the prescribed solution for the coronavirus could cause more harm than the disease itself. If too many people are out of work, according to this line of thinking, everyone will suffer as the economy moves into a depression and individual outcomes worsen.
“It should be a priority to keep people working and, as soon as possible, to return to work the tens of thousands suddenly being idled,” a writer argued in these pages just this week. “We can’t let the cure be worse than the problem,” the president said.
Tempting though those arguments might be, this is dangerous, deadly thinking. There are no public health experts arguing for a reopening of our economy now, when the worst of the virus likely has yet to strike. Official pronouncements on workers staying home can and should be questioned, but there is simply no evidence that local leaders, including Gov. Ned Lamont, are incorrect in their policy prescriptions to this point.
The damage to the economy is real, and it will be severe. But it is foolhardy in the extreme to pretend that reopening schools and businesses would itself not tax the economy. A massive wave of sick people, which is what the quarantines are meant to stop, would overwhelm the health care system and bring many businesses to a halt even without a public decree.
Schools can’t reopen. Young people, it’s true, don’t tend to get as sick from the coronavirus, but they can catch it and spread it to everyone they see. Protecting people means limiting the virus’ ability to move from person to person, and schools are a major source of potential contamination. No one, parents especially, wants to see schools closed even a day longer than they have to be, but it is without question the right move. The alternative would be deadly, not to mention economically disastrous.
The coronavirus is not the flu. It can’t be compared to auto accidents or opioid deaths, which are not contagious and therefore cannot grow exponentially. It is a unique moment in American history that demands sacrifice from everyone to avert the worst.
It may already be too late for that. People are dying and hospitals as close as New York City are overwhelmed. That is the priority, and given Connecticut’s close links to New York, our exposure may be much greater than we have seen to date. Workers must be made whole while they are idled, but opening the economy is not — and cannot be — the immediate goal. We must stay closed until further notice.