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Trump considers reopening US economy over health experts’ objections

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As the United States entered week two of trying to contain the spread of the coronavirus by shuttering large swaths of the economy, President Donald Trump, Wall Street executives and many conservative economists began questioning whether the government had gone too far and should instead lift restrictions that are already inflicting deep pain on workers and businesses.

[WASHINGTON] As the United States entered week two of trying to contain the spread of the coronavirus by shuttering large swaths of the economy, President Donald Trump, Wall Street executives and many conservative economists began questioning whether the government had gone too far and should instead lift restrictions that are already inflicting deep pain on workers and businesses.

Consensus continues to grow among government leaders and health officials that the best way to defeat the virus is to order nonessential businesses to close and residents to confine themselves at home.

Britain, after initially resisting such measures, essentially locked down its economy Monday, as did the governors of Virginia, Michigan and Oregon. More than 100 million Americans will soon be subject to stay-at-home orders.

Relaxing those restrictions could significantly increase the death toll from the virus, public health officials warn. Many economists say there is no positive trade-off — resuming normal activity prematurely would only strain hospitals and result in even more deaths, while exacerbating a recession that has most likely already arrived.

The economic shutdown is causing damage that is only beginning to appear in official data. Morgan Stanley researchers said Monday that they now expected the economy to shrink by an annualized rate of 30 per cent in the second quarter of this year, and the unemployment rate to jump to nearly 13 per cent. Both would be records, in modern economic statistics.

Officials have said the federal government's initial 15-day period for social distancing is vital to slowing the spread of the virus, which has already infected more than 40,000 people in the United States. But Trump and a chorus of conservative voices have begun to suggest that the shock to the economy could hurt the country more than deaths from the virus.

On Monday, Trump said his administration would reassess whether to keep the economy shuttered after the initial 15-day period ends next Monday, saying it could extend another week and that certain parts of the country could reopen sooner than others, depending on the extent of infections.

"Our country wasn't built to be shut down," Trump said during a briefing at the White House. "America will, again, and soon, be open for business. Very soon. A lot sooner than three or four months that somebody was suggesting. Lot sooner. We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself."

Similar views are emanating from parts of corporate America, where companies are struggling with a shutdown that has emptied hotels, airplanes, malls and restaurants and sent the stock market tumbling so fast that automatic circuit breakers to halt trading have been tripped repeatedly. Stocks have collapsed about 34 per cent since the coronavirus spread globally — the steepest plunge in decades — erasing three years of gains under Trump.

Lloyd Blankfein, the former chief executive of Goldman Sachs, wrote on Twitter that "crushing the economy" had downsides and suggested that "within a very few weeks let those with a lower risk to the disease return to work."

Any push to loosen the new limits on commerce and movement would contradict the consensus advice of public health officials, risking a surge in infections and deaths from the virus. Many economists warn that abruptly reopening the economy could backfire, overwhelming an already stressed health care system, sowing uncertainty among consumers, and ultimately dealing deeper, longer-lasting damage to growth.

The recent rise of cases in Hong Kong, after there had been an easing of the spread of the virus, is something of an object lesson about how ending strict measures too soon can have dangerous consequences. Yet places like China, which took the idea of lockdown to the extreme, have managed to flatten the curve.

"You can't call off the best weapon we have, which is social isolation, even out of economic desperation, unless you're willing to be responsible for a mountain of deaths," said Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at NYU Langone Medical Center. "Thirty days makes more sense than 15 days. Can't we try to put people's lives first for at least a month?"

For the last four days, some White House officials, including those working for Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the coronavirus task force, have been raising questions about when the government should start easing restrictions.

Among the options being discussed are narrowing restrictions on economic activity to target specific age groups or locations, as well as increasing the numbers of people who can be together in groups, said one official, who cautioned that the discussions were preliminary.

Health officials inside the administration have mostly opposed that idea, including Dr Anthony Fauci, an infectious diseases expert and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, who has said in interviews that he believes it will be "at least" several more weeks until people can start going about their lives in a more normal fashion.

Dr Deborah L Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said the United States had learned from other countries like China and South Korea, which were able to control the spread of the virus through strict measures and widespread testing.

"Those were eight- to 10-week curves," she said Monday, adding that "each state and each hot spot in the United States is going to be its own curve because the seeds came in at different times."

Birx added that the response "has to be very tailored geographically and it may have to be tailored by age group, really understanding who's at the greatest risk and understanding how to protect them."

Other advisers, including members of Trump's economic team, have said repeatedly in recent months that the virus does not itself pose an extraordinary threat to Americans' lives or the economy, likening it to a common flu season. Some advisers believe the White House overreacted to criticism of Trump's muted actions to deal with the emerging pandemic and gave health experts too large a sway in policymaking.

On Monday, Trump echoed those concerns, saying that things like the flu or car accidents posed as much of a threat to Americans as the coronavirus and that the response to those was far less draconian.

"We have a very active flu season, more active than most. It's looking like it's heading to 50,000 or more deaths," he said, adding: "That's a lot. And you look at automobile accidents, which are far greater than any numbers we're talking about. That doesn't mean we're going to tell everybody no more driving of cars. So we have to do things to get our country open."

Many other economists say the restrictions in activity now are helping the economy in the long run, by beginning to suppress the infection rate.

"The idea that there's a trade-off between health and economics right now is likely badly mistaken," said Jason Furman of Harvard University, a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama. "The thing damaging our economy is a virus. Everyone who is trying to stop that virus is working to limit the damage it does to our economy and help our eventual rebound. The choice may well be taking pretty extreme steps now or taking very extreme steps later."

Furman and other economists have pushed Trump and Congress to ease the economic pain by offering trillions of dollars in government assistance to affected workers and businesses. As lawmakers tried to negotiate an agreement on such a bill Monday, an influential business lobbying group, the US Chamber of Commerce, said it supported restrictions on the economy to slow the virus.

"Our view is, when it comes to how you contain the virus, you do everything the public health professionals say to contain the virus," said Neil Bradley, the chamber's executive vice president and chief policy officer.

The president's suggestion that the response may be an overreaction plays into doubts already held by some Americans suffering the economic consequences. Among the self-quarantined, some have questioned the purpose of isolating themselves if the virus is already circulating widely. Students sent home from college have wondered whether they are more likely to infect higher-risk older adults at home.

But public health officials stress that there would be consequences to ending the measures too quickly. In a tweet on Monday morning, Thomas P Bossert, the former homeland security adviser who for weeks has been vocal about the need for the US government to take stricter measures, said: "Sadly, the numbers now suggest the US is poised to take the lead in #coronavirus cases. It's reasonable to plan for the US to top the list of countries with the most cases in approximately 1 week. This does NOT make social intervention futile. It makes it imperative!"

Trump's interest in potentially easing some of the restrictions met with pushback from one of his close allies, Sen Lindsey Graham, R-S C, who himself self-quarantined after a potential exposure. "President Trump's best decision was stopping travel from China early on," Graham tweeted on Monday. "I hope we will not undercut that decision by suggesting we back off aggressive containment policies within the United States."

Health officials remain largely united in defense of sustaining the restrictions.

"There is a way to think through how and when to start reopening our economy and society, and it's important to get this right," said Dr Thomas R Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr Tom Inglesby, the director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, pointed to the experience of countries like Italy, which did not institute aggressive measures to stop the spread of the virus and saw infection rates and deaths soar as a result.

The United States will need "a couple weeks" to see positive effects from its measures, Inglesby said, and abandoning them would mean "patients will get sick in extraordinary numbers all over the country, far beyond what the US health care system will bear."

THE NEW YORK TIMES