People are saying that we are “past the peak” with Covid-19.  Given this, when is the right time to reopen the economy?

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

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  1. John Hooker says:

    To begin with, this talk of being “past the peak” is highly misleading. It doesn’t mean that the number of sick people has reached a peak. It only means that the number of confirmed new cases per day has peaked (actually, it is on a plateau). The number of sick people is still climbing rapidly and is likely to rise far beyond what it is today.

    As for when we should “reopen the economy,” this is the wrong question. The right question is how we can ramp up a serious public health effort as quickly as possible. Think about it. When we started social distancing, there were far fewer cases than today, and yet the virus was spreading rapidly. What makes us think the virus wouldn’t spread even faster if we stop social distancing now ? It would, of course.

    Unless something is different now. That difference has to be a massive public health program. We need millions of tests per day and legions of public health workers to track down cases. These workers must be trained, and I see no evidence that we have even started.

    We hear about models that predict we can reopen the economy sometime in May. But read the fine print. They assume that widespread testing and contact tracing will be in place. We are nowhere close to this.

    There is another problem with simply asking when we should reopen the economy. It implies that we must weigh economic cost against the health risk to returning workers. This is a false dichotomy. We can and must restart the economy and protect workers. The US has had workplace safety regulations for decades. We must immediately extend OSHA rules to protect against infectious disease. A few states are taking small steps in this direction, but we need an immediate national response. To my knowledge, nobody is even talking about this.

    The cost of a serious public health effort is exorbitant. But it is peanuts compared with the cost of off-and-on lockdowns as we wait months or years for a vaccine. The anti-lockdown protestors are right about one thing: we cannot go on like this. But the remedy is not to deny the threat. We must invest whatever it takes to hire an army of public health workers. We must manufacture drugs and vaccines before their clinical trials finish, so that we will have a supply of the ones that work. This is frightfully wasteful, but not nearly as wasteful as what we are doing now.

    Speaking of protestors, should a free society tolerate lockdown orders? Aren’t they better suited to an authoritarian country? I love freedom at least as much as the protestors, but I also recognize that laws don’t necessarily restrict freedom. The government won’t let us mug people on the street or steal our neighbor’s car, and we don’t view this as a restriction of freedom. It isn’t, of course, because these laws only institutionalize what ethics already requires. The deepest lesson ethics has taught us over the centuries is that we can be truly free only by acting ethically. Autonomous action is the same as ethical action. Conforming to appropriate health regulations is not a capitulation to an authoritarian state, but an exercise of freedom.


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