Opinion: The U.S Isn’t Prepared to Reopen the Economy

In this article UCSD Guardian writer Sean Kim argues that reopening the economy without the proper infrastructure will lead to disaster.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused widespread unemployment and an economic crisis that rivals the 2008 Recession. And as most states have passed their peak infection rates, many leaders are moving to reopen the country. While the economy absolutely does need to reopen, the United States currently does not have enough testing capacity or a workable contact-tracing system to support a large-scale reopening. This infrastructure should be in place before a large-scale reopening of the country to prevent further deaths from the pandemic.

To fully reopen the economy, the country needs the proper infrastructure in place. Expanded testing capacity, and contact-tracing would be necessary in order to reopen the economy. But since a vaccine is not expected until mid-2021, testing capacity and contact-tracing are the only viable options to mitigate new outbreaks. For example, researchers at Harvard University found that testing capacity in the U.S. needs to triple before the economy can reopen. But there is currently no national plan, or funding, to achieve this needed testing capacity. While testing capacity has increased to about 264,000 people per day, the capacity itself has not yet expanded to the point where it is safe to revive the economy.

Contact-tracing is another essential aspect; in order to manage the outbreak properly and allow the economy to safely reopen, states need to expand the number and funding of contract-tracers. Some states are doing so, but other states, such as Idaho and Indiana, depend on local health departments for such efforts. This raises a point about the fragmented nature of the contact-tracing system in the U.S. The virus will not spread according to jurisdictional lines, therefore, a system that manages only most states is not enough. An outbreak not managed or traced properly in one state can harm every other state. Yet, the current coronavirus tracking system does not cover all 50 states. To properly address the spread of the disease, the U.S. needs a unified, cohesive system, one that is not even in the works. The consequences of choosing not to reopen still exist, but delaying reopening may save lives in the process. 

According to some estimates, if states do not reopen at all prior to June 30, 18.6 million more jobs are expected to be lost between May and June — but there will be nearly no additional loss of life.On the other end of the spectrum, if states fully reopen in May, an additional 233,000 deaths are expected as a result. And in the middle ground scenario, if states partially reopen and citizens maintain social distancing recommendations, an additional 45,000 deaths are expected. This debate between lives and livelihoods has been labeled as the “Terrible Moral Choice” by some, as it pits the value of human life against the ability to support oneself. However, in such a debate, human life should win every time. To label human life as collateral damage for economic progress is a decision that, in my view, is fundamentally immoral. Furthermore, if the process of reopening the country is flawed, the resulting following outbreaks could cause future economic stagnation.

Once the U.S. reaches adequate testing capacity and creates a cohesive contact-tracing system, the economy and businesses should reopen. But as of right now, the proper infrastructure does not exist. A large-scale reopening before the country is ready would be a mistake, and one that would be paid for in human lives.

Artwork by UCSD Guardian Art Department artist Susan Sun.

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