Last week Glenn Beck offered the opinion on his radio show that he was willing to die if the country could get back to work. He painted a vivid picture of the suffering that will follow the economic catastrophe that is presently staring us and the world in the face. In one way, he was right: if we don’t get back to work, there is going to be an economic catastrophe. In another, wrong: if we go back to work too soon, the catastrophe will be far worse.
He was right to fear that an unprecedented collapse of the world economy is at hand. There are so many things wrong already that it is all but unavoidable. Italy, for example, cannot repay the debt it is incurring to fight the outbreak there. That debt is going to have to be forgiven, and if the banks that hold it are going to survive, the EU will have to guarantee it. Venezuela, Iraq, Iran and probably Nigeria are all likely to default. At the same time, there will be corporations and financial entities collapsing as well.
He was wrong to imagine that the solution he proposes will do anything other than make matters even worse. If we do not contain this virus, it is going to be with us until an effective vaccine is available. (I don’t want to get into the vaccine argument here. I am always concerned that vaccines receive proper testing, and I know that they can never be entirely safe. But the benefits far outweigh the risks.) The reason that COVD-19 is so dangerous is that nobody who has not yet been infected is immune. Nobody. This means that, if we don’t effectively contain it, our species’ ability to care for its sick is going to be overwhelmed. There will be not thousands or even millions of victims, but eventually the number will run toward a billion, and will continue to rise until herd immunity sets in. At the same time, though, the increasing virus load in the species will lead to mutations. Whether or not they will be more or less lethal is simply a crapshoot.
In the end, then, if we go back to work, we will, probably within just months, be in an even worse situation than we are now.
In other words, there is no good way out of our present predicament.
There are, however, some hard choices that are likely to work.
We must be prepared to do things to save our economies that are unprecedented. Financially strong countries will have to reach out to help weaker ones, lest they also be dragged down into the maelstrom of bankruptcies that will follow major national defaults. Governments must also protect the lives and livelihoods of their citizens with innovative and persistent support of frozen economic structures. For example, some European countries are simply guaranteeing the wages of laid-off employees, meaning that everything stays in place as long as necessary and people do not end up losing their businesses and their homes, possibly even starving.
The United States needs to adopt a similar policy. But this is a huge country compared, to say, Denmark, and there is a question of affordability. Innovative ways to make it affordable must be found, because without some sort of plan like it, the next two or three months are going to bring with them wave after wave of business failures, meaning that there are not going to be jobs to return to.
Ideology doesn’t matter anymore. Policies, such as the US policy of letting states bid against one another for emergency supplies instead of managing their distribution and cost at the federal level must stop at once. This is no time to apply conventional economic philosophy. The only result is that not enough supplies will be made available, especially in poorer states, and the disease will cripple their healthcare systems by decimating their medical workforce.
We have to face facts: trying to put any country back to work despite the fact that this will lead to a vast increase in contagion is going to lead instead to an even worse result that what we are doing now. In fact, it will result in a catastrophe of completely unprecedented and uncontrollable magnitude.
In the US, we are in grave danger from the politicalization of this issue. Glen Beck ended his statement with the words, “let’s see if this trends.” In other words, can he start a groundswell of opinion among his followers that will spill out into the public at large?
Right now, that isn’t going to happen. But in a few weeks, if we are not back at work, the calls to reopen the country may well overwhelm the better judgement of policy makers. Then we will end up involved in one of the greatest gambles in human history, if not the greatest. May God be with us then.