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Disease and Cure: A Balancing Act P1507 June 2020

Author: Martin Schwirn (Send us feedback.)

Determining which responses to the pandemic best balanced medical needs and economic considerations will take years.

Abstracts in this Pattern:

The coronavirus-disease-2019 (covid-19) pandemic required strong responses to stop the spread of the disease and to limit fatalities. But such responses cause economic problems that invite new health threats. When does the cure become worse than the disease?

Some media outlets had already declared a recession in March 2020. Although using the term recession so early is technically incorrect (according to most definitions, a recession requires two successive quarters of declining GDP), the arrival of a recession would not be surprising. Given the economic effects of governments' heavy-handed covid-19 interventions, some observers have called for more measured, surgical approaches. For example, physician and author David L. Katz argues that "the social, economic and public health consequences...will be long lasting and calamitous, possibly graver than the direct toll of the virus itself.... The unemployment, impoverishment and despair likely to result will be public health scourges of the first order." In fact, the US government's intervention required second-order policies to avoid evictions and foreclosures that would have led to the displacement of mostly vulnerable members of the population, who would then have been unable to follow shelter-in-place orders. Other health- and safety-related problems resulting from current interventions include price gouging and domestic violence and sexual harm.

At the same time, a strong social-distancing policy may have not only health benefits but also positive economic effects in the long run. Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT; Cambridge, Massachusetts) MIT Sloan School of Management and two financial institutions of the US government looked at the effects of the policies in use to address the Spanish flu in 1918 and found that "cities that acted more aggressively performed better." A University of Chicago (Chicago, Illinois) survey revealed that economists generally agree that lifting the lockdown in the United States when another surge in infections is possible would cause greater economic harm than would staying on course for some time. And International Monetary Fund (United Nations; New York, New York) chief Kristalina Georgieva sees containment of the virus as a prerequisite for a quick recovery.