During the first weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak, America focused on saving lives and preventing the disease from spreading at all costs.
Now that noble sentiment must give way to the cold calculus of balancing one harm against another. How many sick and dead Washingtonians will people accept to end a catastrophic economic shutdown? The answer isn’t 1 million, but it also shouldn’t be zero or nearly so.
State leaders are already doing risk-based analyses. Gov. Jay Inslee did not forbid residents from shopping for gardening supplies as Michigan’s governor did. He did, however, go further than Oregon by ordering golf courses closed. Each governor decides what risks are appropriate for his or her state.
If saving lives were a singular, unassailable goal, then the country would shut down annually to prevent spread of the flu, which has claimed up to 62,000 lives this season, more than the novel coronavirus. If the economic impact didn’t matter, America would outlaw motor vehicles that kill more than 30,000 people annually and injure about 3 million. Inslee and President Donald Trump last week announced frameworks for reopening the economy. What was most striking about their respective plans was how well they aligned. Broadly, the president recommends that states see a decline in documented cases over a couple of weeks and ensure that hospitals can treat all patients before they start a phased reopening.
Testing is a critical component of both. States must be able to identify who has the virus so that those people can be isolated to prevent them from transmitting it to others. Federal and state governments must have a hand in expanding testing availability. Spokane has made good progress with this.
Contact tracing with adequate privacy protections needs to be implemented, too, so that people know if they have been exposed and can quickly turn to testing or self-isolation for peace of mind and the community’s health. The United States might look to South Korea for guidance. There, aggressive testing, contact tracing and social intervention bent the disease curve much more rapidly than here and with less dire economic consequences.
Millions of Americans have lost their jobs. Those newly unemployed are disproportionately low-income Americans who live paycheck-to-paycheck or from communities of color. The sooner they can return to work, the less devastating the effect on their lives. Suicide and domestic violence rates increase during hard times. Putting the economy on the path to recovery therefore is a humanitarian imperative, not something that can wait 12 to 18 months for a vaccine to become widely available.
Facing steep revenue shortfalls, Inslee and other governors are agitating for federal bailouts. Yet the U.S. government does not have bottomless pockets at a time when the nation already has record debt and deficits. It is not wise to risk the wealth and strength of the entire nation on a relatively small number of lives that statistically tend to be older and have pre-existing conditions.
As Inslee looks at phased reopening, elective medical procedures should be a top priority. Today’s elective surgery is tomorrow’s much more expensive critical surgery. Construction, manufacturing and agriculture also should be among the early industries to restart.
Then the governor should turn to businesses that have highly manageable environments from a transmission standpoint. Shopping centers, theaters and restaurants could adopt occupancy, distancing and masking strategies to minimize chances of transmission. Maybe they will need to check for symptoms like fever at the door.
The governor should think locally, too. Crowded King County might need to stay closed, but that shouldn’t prevent other parts of the state where the outbreak is much better contained from reopening. Likewise, Inslee shouldn’t let Oregon and California dictate Washington’s approach, despite his West Coast team-up.
Washington has done a good job rallying to stem the tide of the pandemic. Now Inslee should unveil solid rules for getting people back to work and a recovery that leads to a soft landing for hundreds of thousands of unemployed Washingtonians while providing protections for vulnerable victims.
With the pressure off saving lives, we now need real focus on saving livelihoods.Endorsements and editorials are made solely by the ownership group and publisher of this newspaper. As is the case at most newspapers across the nation, The Spokesman-Review newsroom and its editors are not a part of this endorsement process.
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