COVID-19 is a defining moment in our national character and has quickly thrusted our nation into a climate of fear. As our country scrambles to combat the virus, we must fully consider the short-term and long-term ramifications of actions and inaction, no matter how uncomfortable they may be. We cannot put a price tag on human lives, but we also cannot use the emotional impact of lives as a blank check to bypass the discussion over the breadth, aggressiveness and length of a severe response like a lockdown.
A lockdown has a tangible health benefit of delaying cases and flattening the curve, but when we decide to enforce a lockdown, it is imperative that we fully calculate costs and benefits — which at some point will include the somber question of lives.
The optics of publicly weighing these decisions are awful, especially as the crisis persists, but we can’t pretend that we don’t weigh the costs and benefits of numerous dangerous actions everyday. In 2019, 10,000 individuals died in drunk driving accidents. In that same year, the seasonal flu killed 57,000. If we wanted, we could reduce these numbers to near zero by banning alcohol, mandating smart breathalyzers in all cars or implementing forced vaccinations. However, these responses would come at the cost of freedom, mobility, bodily autonomy or money itself. These comparisons should pale to the death toll of COVID-19, which could kill upward of 200,000, making it imperative to contain its spread. But it is equally imperative to weigh the costs of our preventions and find a balance that preserves lives while maintaining long-term social stability, just as we have found a balance for preventing deaths from the flu or from drunk drivers.
A failure to strike this balance could lead to a case where the cure is worse than the sickness. Let’s use a hypothetical situation — Jim, a married, 45-year-old middle-class professional from St. Louis has one kid and a wife. Jim is also one of the 10% of adult Americans who owns a supplemental rental investment property. Jim is laid off from his job and files for unemployment as one of the 3.3 million who also lost their job in March. Fortunately, unlike 70% of Americans, Jim has $20,000 in savings, which is the recommended amount for someone in his age group. As long as his rental generates cash flow, he can stay afloat with the rental.
This is true until his tenant stages a rent strike. Quickly, the dominoes fall: Jim does not have the cash flow to pay the mortgage on the rental, the property taxes on his home and the basic necessities for his family. His rental goes into foreclosure, contributing to a housing crisis, and his unemployment benefits barely pay the utilities or put food on the table. As his unemployment benefits run out after several months, and with the stock market still tanking from the recession, Jim and his family are financially wiped out.
Jim’s story may be just one small case example of how an indefinite COVID-19 shutdown will ripple throughout the economy and unwind the financial institutions that support everyday middle-class Americans, even the ones who were doing everything “right” up until now.
Is a shutdown, which would harm Jim and most middle-class Americans, necessary for the rescue of the nation? Probably. But it’s a question worth thinking about until a vaccine, which may take at least a year, can be circulated. To lock down for so long would unravel the economy and permanently undermine the underlying Western, liberal fabric, which is a cost we must weigh against saving lives. A miscalculated reaction will precipitate consequences ranging from nationalism and erosion of liberties to stagflation and mass civil unrest.
I know we can survive this epidemic intact, even if it comes at a cost. The 1957 Asian flu pandemic killed almost 120,000 Americans, yet the fact that that virus killed so many and we were still able to recover has gone unnoticed during this time — even the name would cause confusion with President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 naming antics. We must follow in the footsteps of the 1957 pandemic with measured shutdowns and closures so that COVID-19 can become the footnote in our history rather than the title of a new tumultuous chapter. That process starts with a frank analysis of the cost of lives, long-term stability and ramifications of our responses. Otherwise, we will be laying the coffins of the pandemic years after its victims are cold in the Earth.
Sean Anderson (19Ox, 21B) is from Atlanta.
Sean Anderson (19Ox, 21B) is from Atlanta and is dual-concentrating in accounting and information systems and operations management at Goizueta Business School. In his free time, you’ll catch him jogging in Lullwater Preserve, photographing nature and reading about history.