Getting Back to Work – But How?

By Shlomo Maital

Thomas Friedman

So far, this tiny virus, COVID-19, has caught us napping. We are all playing catch-up, making policy moves (like “shelter at home”) just a trifle too late, or a lot too late, as in unfortunate Italy. And we are making huge mistakes. Italy drafted its aging pensioner doctors and medical staff – the most vulnerable group of all – and many have sadly died. This should not have happened.

So, can we for a change think ahead a bit? With people at home, rather than at work – how can we get them back to work? Economists are pretty quiet these days (except, loud mouths, like Arthur Laffer or Larry Kudlow) but maybe we do have something sensible to contribute?

Tom Friedman, NYT Op-Ed coumnits, wisest of persons, says: “can we more surgically minimize the threat of this virus to those most vulnerable while we maximize the chances for as many Americans as possible to safely go back to work as soon as possible?”   He has a solution, based on the experts with whom he consulted.

Economists crunch numbers. We have far too few good numbers on COVID-19. Dr. John Ioannides, Stanford U., mentioned by Friedman, writes:

“The current coronavirus disease, Covid-19, has been called a once-in-a-century pandemic. But it may also be a once-in-a-century evidence fiasco.   At a time when everyone needs better information, from disease modelers and governments to people quarantined or just social distancing, we lack reliable evidence on how many people have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 or who continue to become infected. Better information is needed to guide decisions and actions of monumental significance and to monitor their impact.   Draconian countermeasures have been adopted in many countries. If the pandemic dissipates — either on its own or because of these measures — short-term extreme social distancing and lockdowns may be bearable. How long, though, should measures like these be continued if the pandemic churns across the globe unabated? How can policymakers tell if they are doing more good than harm”.

     And in a NYT Op-Ed, “Is Our Fight Against Coronavirus Worse Than the Disease?”, Dr. David Katz, Yale University, writes that “as the work force is laid off en masse (our family has one adult child home for that reason already), and colleges close (we have another two young adults back home for this reason), young people of indeterminate infectious status are being sent home to huddle with their families nationwide. And because we lack widespread testing, they may be carrying the virus and transmitting it to their 50-something parents, and 70- or 80-something grandparents. If there are any clear guidelines for behavior within families — what I call “vertical interdiction” — I have not seen them”.

Katz asks, “When would it be safe to visit loved ones in nursing homes or hospitals? When once again might grandparents pick up their grandchildren?”  

Here is his proposal: In short, focus on the most vulnerable, protect them – and get others back to work:

   If we were to focus on the especially vulnerable, there would be resources to keep them at home, provide them with needed services and coronavirus testing, and direct our medical system to their early care. I would favor proactive rather than reactive testing in this group, and early use of the most promising anti-viral drugs. This cannot be done under current policies, as we spread our relatively few test kits across the expanse of a whole population, made all the more anxious because society has shut down. This focus on a much smaller portion of the population would allow most of society to return to life as usual and perhaps prevent vast segments of the economy from collapsing. Healthy children could return to school and healthy adults go back to their jobs. Theaters and restaurants could reopen, though we might be wise to avoid very large social gatherings like stadium sporting events and concerts. So long as we were protecting the truly vulnerable, a sense of calm could be restored to society. Just as important, society as a whole could develop natural herd immunity to the virus. The vast majority of people would develop mild coronavirus infections, while medical resources could focus on those who fell critically ill. Once the wider population had been exposed and, if infected, had recovered and gained natural immunity, the risk to the most vulnerable would fall dramatically.   A pivot right now from trying to protect all people to focusing on the most vulnerable remains entirely plausible. With each passing day, however, it becomes more difficult. The path we are on may well lead to uncontained viral contagion and monumental collateral damage to our society and economy. A more surgical approach is what we need.”

Can we rethink our policies and strategy? Can we add some thought about economics to the public health/medical policy mix? Can we think ahead of the virus, instead of chasing it and falling behind?   Can we truly think cost-benefit, systemically, holistically?