I should have put this title in quotation marks, but I think the database doesn't like that.
This is only secondarily a discussion of the economic response to Covid-19, and what exactly has been the impact of the different quarantines, both in the United States and around the world. That is a very complicated subject, and I am tired. This is more about how debates are phrased and framed, and the perils of narrative.
Recently and currently there is a debate in the United States. The Covid-19 pandemic has slowed down from a rate of exponential growth, to a rate where its spread is "under control". This slowing is because of various levels of quarantine and social distancing. While these measures have slowed the spread of Covid-19, they also can be onerous. As I am personally experiencing right now.
The problem is the debate about "reopening the economy" is that it is already phrased with a false premise. Even people who believe that "reopening the economy" is either insane or callous argue that sacrificing people's lives is not worth it to "restart the economy". But in arguing that, they buy into the dichotomy.
The economy is in terrible condition right now not because of government-imposed quarantines, but because an economy where people are in danger of getting severely ill from normal activity naturally curtails both supply and demand. The Dow Jones average is not a perfect metric for the economy, but lets go from there. The Dow Jones was nervous as Covid-19 was spreading in China, but starting with the spread of the pandemic to Italy, Spain and the United States, it started dropping rapidly. Between February 21st and March 12th, it lost 8000 points, or between 25 and 33% of its value. Italy started its quarantine on March 9th. California, the first state in the United States to do so, announced its statewide quarantine on March 19th. Since then, most states of the United States have gone under quarantine, and the response of the Dow Jones, NASDAQ and S&P 500 was to go up. Perhaps they won't stay there. We are still at the beginning of this.
But the thing is: the economy was in a dire situation before the quarantines. Airlines were cancelling flights. Events and sports were closing. Even if the pandemic had not become worse, many hospitality and tourism related businesses live on thin margins, and people's natural aversion to exposing themselves was enough to dent a blow to the entire tourism, travel and hospitality sectors of the economy. Even with no government restrictions, airlines and hotels would be facing massive layoffs.
And that was just the beginning. If the disease did continue at an exponential rate, it would not be just those sectors threatened. At a certain point of infection, the basic ability of the economy to produce and distribute basic goods would have failed. Supermarkets are still open across the United States. At a certain level of infection, employees would be either too scared or too sick to come to work, and shoppers would be too scared to shop. Factories, warehouses and distribution could all stop from illness, fear, and perhaps civil unrest. I can't say exactly when that would happen, what number of people would become sick before basic services stopped working, but it was not too far off the horizon. The economy was in deep trouble, not because of government-mandated closures, but because a modern country can't survive with millions of people deathly ill with a contagious disease.
And yet. And yet.
Once a phrase enters the public discourse, once something becomes part of a narrative, people have to line up around it. Even people who are against "opening the economy" are talking like it is an option. There is not a trade off where we can decide to let a million people die to return the economy to the state it was in in November of last year. It is not that that would be an immoral, short sighted or foolish decision. It is that that is impossible. It is akin to saying that after someone has swept up a broken glass, they have a choice to reuse it rather than throwing it away. The economy of three months ago is gone, and will be gone for a while. But with the amount of narrative right now, once the idea of "reopening the economy" has been raised, people find themselves in the prospect of arguing against it, rather than just saying that is nonsense, and moving on.