A Rush Job to “Re-Open” the Economy

It appears from his USA TODAY op-ed that Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin is comfortable with doubling down on his previous statements that addressing the covid-19 pandemic in the US is not worth the economic damage caused by the various lockdowns being put in place.


It’s easy to dismiss him as yet another conservative ghoul. (Sorry, but just about every take that’s either directly or indirectly okay with higher death rates comes from Republicans and/or libertarians).

However, I happen to agree that a balance will eventually have to be struck between coronavirus mitigation and economic activity.

(And to be honest, I don’t mind a stark reminder of our mortality, though he has a particularly brutal way of saying it. “Death is an unavoidable part of life.” Is he a religious man?)


We have no effective, widespread testing regime in place in the US, either to detect live cases or to identify people who have recovered. This second group of tests – blood, or serological, tests – can identify people who could be immune and might be able to work safely with sick patients. They can also donate their serum for the virus-killing antibodies it contains, which can be used in research and possibly treatments.

We have not adequately ramped up our medical resources. He makes yet another bogus comparison to known dangers, like the seasonal flu, which our health systems are geared up to address. One of the biggest dangers from this “novel” (as in new) coronavirus, as it was originally called, has been that it appears to be ridiculously infectious – in part, because no human has encountered it before – which creates an enormous number of cases all at once. Current data show about 15% of all cases require hospitalization – often for weeks – which our system is simply not scaled up to handle. Also, while case and mortality data continue to come in, it does appear that covid-19 is some multiple more deadly than the seasonal flu. Even Pres. Trump has now said that 100- to 200-thousand US deaths would be a “very good” outcome, compared to a potential two million deaths.

We have no effective tracing and isolation regime in place. Johnson throws a bone to the need for the current set of social distancing/lockdown orders in place in many states. (“Social distancing should continue until this outbreak is under control.” However, the only way to refine social distancing, and therefore re-start portions of the economy, is to set up a way to identify the sick people, find out who they had close contact with, and get them all out of the public. Otherwise, it just becomes the Wild West for the virus all over again.

In short, how about we fix the public health problem FIRST, then get busy worrying about which parts of the economy to return to normal? I’d take these calls much more seriously then.

Three other things to address.

First, there’s been a lot of focus on whether Trump believes or doesn’t believe in extending these lockdowns. (This isn’t addressed specifically by Johnson.) But why? Trump has no authority to do that. (Or maybe limited? Where are those strict constitutionalist conservative scholars when you need them?) These lockdowns are imposed by the states. Count ourselves lucky that, under our federal system, governors who realized the true extent of the danger were empowered to act without the blessing of the central government. (Unlike China.) The Trump administration’s recommendations are just that – recommendations.

Second, Johnson does say that he wants to flip our policy from identifying “essential” economic activity to instead identifying “non-essential” economic activity. Look, the fact is that a lot of the mass social activities that have been targeted by the lockdown orders are non-essential. Commuting to offices might prove to have been a luxury, or maybe just plain silly. Also with eating out, live entertainment, travel, etc. Our economy existed before these were mass products and services and, while I miss them, too, life does goes on. (A worldview the senator would seem to be comfortable with.) The problem is, instead, how to employ people in this new world. Some are already re-deploying to delivery services and logistics. How about we incentivize and/or aid transitions into medical care, medical support, in-home visits, etc.? We need people in light manufacturing (of masks, etc.) This transition is painful, so let’s find ever more ways to smooth it. And of course, make it absolutely safe for people to perform these roles.

Finally, along that line, should the good senator not be comfortable with addressing any of these public health considerations first, then he should be first in line to volunteer at a restaurant serving out-of-work folks or in a hospital or elderly care setting. Put yourself, Sen. Johnson, on the front lines of the coronavirus economy. Otherwise, kiss off.

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