It’s a False Choice to Pit Public Health vs. Economic Health

One of the most frustrating aspects of the online debate about coronavirus is the ongoing idea that we confront some kind of stark binary—that we can have a lower number of deaths and a dreadful recession or our government can tolerate a higher level of risk and “open up” the American economy, thereby avoiding most of the economic pain. In reality, our national challenge is almost fiendishly complex. Human behavior, urban/rural economic disparities, international trade, and federalism all combine to mean there is no either/or, but rather a series of both/ands that ultimately require that we keep the virus under control.

Interestingly enough, this either/or conversation is taking place—especially in conservative Twitter and on conservative media—just as coronavirus deaths are spiking to almost 2,000 per day in the United States, with the state of New York now facing more confirmed cases and deaths on a per capita basis than the worst-hit European nations of France and Spain. 

In spite of this sobering death toll, the immediate impetus behind the new call to “open up” America (a call that in some quarters is quite militant) is the continued downward revision in estimated COVID-19 deaths (assuming social distancing) in the influential Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) model combined with the undeniably dreadful unemployment numbers—numbers that represent a heartbreaking burden on American families. 

But even as we cheer the downward projections in total deaths and lament increasing American unemployment, the question still remains: Is it even possible to restore the economy before the virus is brought under control? Let’s walk through some key factors.

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