As I sit in our home in self-isolation, I ponder our country’s economic health over the next several months and beyond. Watching people mobilize to fight an invisible coronavirus is certainly inspirational. We all know that managing individual behavior will go a long way towards slowing down and eventually stopping the spread of this frightening pandemic.
Yet, why is it that canceling large events, not meeting in large groups, working from home and keeping six feet of separation between people enough? I fear that by shuttering businesses including restaurants, bars, malls, gyms. movie theaters, travel companies and more that we are headed to unprecedented economic difficulty.
At this moment, a couple of thousand people have died in the US, which is sad and painful especially for their families and loved ones. However, if we stay on this course of stopping business commerce, then hundreds of thousands of people will die from the dire economic consequences that may lie ahead.
When the unemployment rate rises one percent, nearly 40,000 deaths may follow according to Bluestone et all in The Causes and Consequences of Economic Dislocation, which is often summarized in economic textbooks and quoted in the popular movie, The Big Short. A further breakdown of the numbers include: 20,000 heart attacks, 920 suicides, and 650 homicides.
A three percent rise in unemployment could lead to well over 100,000 deaths, which significantly eclipses the several hundred coronavirus deaths that are directly connected to the pandemic. I believe this scenario shows we need to maintain social distancing practices, yet keep our retail businesses open. If certain individuals, such as seniors and those with pre-existing health conditions wish to self-isolate, then they can take the necessary steps.
The remaining 80% to 90% of the population need to learn accept and live with the risk of this pandemic to maintain our quality of life. We can alter our individual behavior, practice good hygiene, show compassion for those who become ill, mobilize financial and human resources to fight the pandemic and do so without grinding our business, personal, and consumer lives to a halt.
Compassion should also be extended to the small business owner, who has the working capital to operate for only a short period of time without modest sales. Their entire allocation of finances may be invested in the business including the ability to support their employees and family. In addition, they could be at an age where there is insufficient time to recover from a business or personal bankruptcy. Shouldn’t we accept a reasonable amount of risk to give this entrepreneur the opportunity to keep their business afloat?
Another over-looked aspect of this pandemic is the geographic unequal distribution of the virus. Four states, including New York, New Jersey, Washington, and California consist of 64% of the cases. Breaking it down further, most of the people with the illness in these states live in New York City, Seattle, and the CA Bay Area.
Although the virus has reached all 50 states, why should West Virginia with eight cases and South Dakota with 50 cases and one death suffer negative economic consequences when their case numbers are extremely small. West Virginia is already in a tough spot due to the loss of manufacturing and the coal industry in their state.
In today’s world, there is risk all around us with crime, car accidents, natural disasters and more. We do not stop living due to tragic circumstances that inevitably find their way into our lives. Instead, we confront the tragedy head on and know in our guts that we must always find a way to persevere. The ultimate risk is not taking one and right now we are on extremely risky ground.