Despite repeated warnings from health officials about the dangers of lifting social distancing restrictions, President Trump is now signaling that he may go against their advice and prioritize the economy.
In a Tuesday morning briefing, the World Health Organization warned that the United States could be the new epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak: 40% of new cases recorded around the world in the past 24 hours were from the U.S. Nearly 50,000 cases of the novel coronavirus have been recorded in the U.S. and 600 people have died, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University early Tuesday afternoon.
Yet, despite the continued rise in cases and repeated warnings from health officials about the dangers of lifting social distancing restrictions, President Trump is now signaling that he may go against their advice and prioritize re-opening the economy by Easter, which falls on April 12.
“Our people want to return to work. They will practice Social Distancing and all else, and Seniors will be watched over protectively & lovingly. We can do two things together,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “THE CURE CANNOT BE WORSE (by far) THAN THE PROBLEM! Congress MUST ACT NOW. We will come back strong!”
“THE CURE,” in this case, is social distancing, which aims to limit public gatherings and temporarily shutters nonessential businesses. Trump, driven by concerns that the faltering economy could hurt his re-election bid, has suggested that parts of the economy could be reopened without posing a threat to public health.
The economy is undoubtedly hurting, with unemployment claims soaring as businesses shut down. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard warned Sunday that the national unemployment rate could hit 30% in the second quarter because of coronavirus-related shutdowns. The stock market has also plunged 30% in less than a month, further driving Trump’s fears.
Trump also stated without evidence Tuesday that despair over the current economic situation would lead to a surge in suicides that would outpace the number of coronavirus deaths.
“You’re going to have suicides by the thousands,” Trump said during a Fox News virtual town hall.
Indeed, many Americans are experiencing worsening anxiety and depression. Some medical experts, however, have suggested Trump’s response to the outbreak is actually responsible for these outcomes. Yale psychiatrist Dr. Brandy Lee told Salon that Trump was spreading a “mental health pandemic” and inspiring “fanatical” and “very dangerous behavior” that could worsen the impacts of the coronavirus.
Congress is currently trying to address some of the economic consequences of the coronavirus, negotiating a nearly $2 trillion relief package this week to help Americans affected by the economic fallout of the pandemic. But the notion of a prolonged economic downturn has some Republicans ready to accept a countless number of deaths to mitigate social distancing measures and reopen the economy.
During an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson on Monday, Lt. Governor of Texas Dan Patrick openly called for grandparents to risk death in order to preserve the economy.
“Let’s get back to work. Let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it,” Patrick said. “And those of us who are 70 plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.”
Trump and Patrick are not the only Republicans who seem eager to ignore public health officials. Many Republicans, including Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.), as well as conservative economists Steven Moore and Art Laffer, are urging Trump to reopen parts of the economy.
While Trump has significant power as president, the business shutdowns have been driven by governors, so it’s unclear what tangible actions Trump could take beyond exerting pressure. Still, the notion of simply reopening the economy and moving forward with business as usual is an alarming one.
The Imperial College of London estimates that 2.2 million Americans would die if the virus were allowed to run its course without major efforts to slow its spread. With significant mitigation efforts however, the number of expected deaths would be 1.1 to 1.2 million Americans.
Meanwhile, scientists and health experts continue to emphasize the urgency of first treating the pandemic as a public health crisis rather than an economic one.
“The economy cannot be fixed without solving the pandemic,” Dr. Ezekiel Emmanuel wrote in a New York Times op-ed on Monday. “Only after the virus is contained can we reopen restaurants, bars, gyms and stores; allow people to travel, attend conferences and visit museums; and persuade them to buy cars and houses.”
Scott Gottlieb, former head of the Food and Drug Administration under Trump, also criticized the notion that you could have a strong economy while a pandemic ravages the nation.
“It should not be lost on anyone that there’s no such thing as a functioning economy and society so long as covid-19 continues to spread uncontrolled in our biggest cities,” Gottlieb wrote on Twitter, later adding that “the only way to return to a stable economy and restore our liberty, is to end epidemic spread of covid-19.”
These medical experts all agree that the way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 is substantial social distancing efforts, and the U.S. is about one week into its efforts.
The choice between public health and the economy is also something of a false one. Denmark is covering between 75% and 90% of employees’ wages if their companies keep them on payroll, while the United Kingdom is covering 80%. These efforts allow workers to stay at home and maintain the nation’s economies while they prioritize public health and work to slow the spread of the virus.
Instead of advocating for the U.S. government to fund such programs, President Trump may be on the brink of rolling back public health protections and accepting a surge of deaths for the sake of the economy. If that happens, it’s likely to set off a furor across the nation, as evidenced by the number two trending topic on twitter on Tuesday morning: #NotDying4WallStreet.
The governor who oversees Wall Street, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, perhaps best underscored the absurdity of the debate.
“My mother is not expendable. Your mother is not expendable. We will not put a dollar figure on human life,” Cuomo tweeted on Tuesday morning. “No one should be talking about social darwinism for the sake of the stock market.”