Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been presented with a clear dichotomy of policy choices. The government could institute restrictions that sacrifice the economy for the benefit of public health, or take a laissez faire attitude towards the pandemic that does the reverse. This dichotomy has defined the public understanding of pandemic policy and possibly politicized the pandemic more than anything else.
To conservatives in favor of a laissez faire approach, even basic public safety measures became associated with over-cautiousness, economic ruin and political correctness. Those that supported restrictions bought into the same framework: they called conservatives greedy and heartless for caring more about the economy than human lives.
These assumptions still go unchallenged. But after a year and a half of this pandemic, it is becoming clear that reality was not as simple and clear-cut. It turns out that very restrictive approaches to the pandemic might have been the best long-term economic choice, not one that sacrificed the economy.
This may sound strange, but that is because our understanding of what caused the coronavirus recession is flawed. The slowdown in economic activity was not because government officials hit some kind of economic off-switch. It was because millions of people were terrified of getting a life-threatening disease.
These people existed before the shelter-in-place orders. They existed after these orders were rescinded, and in the areas where restrictions were simply never enforced. But they were rarely acknowledged by a media that focused on only the most extreme anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers over everyone else.
However, this was not the case everywhere. Other countries around the world recognized that having a large portion of their population fearful of going out would be a major long-term economic problem, so they attempted the only real solution: getting transmission as low as possible. This goal led countries to institute measures unimaginable by American standards, with nations like Australia and New Zealand shutting down entire cities after only a few infections.
These measures were undeniably effective at stopping the spread. New Zealand has never had over 100 confirmed cases in a single day. Australia never had more than 1000 cases a day until this summer. But more importantly, neither country faced economic devastation as a result of these monumental efforts.
Completely contrary to expectations, they got the best of both worlds, achieving miniscule spread while also seeing a rapid economic recovery. Because of their serious approaches to stopping the spread, both Australia and New Zealand came out of the pandemic with massive economic surges that brought them at and above their pre-COVID GDP levels.
China is another example of this. After instituting some of the worlds most draconian and controversial lockdown rules at the start of the pandemic, they stopped the spread to such an extent that they never even had a recession in the first place, being the only major economy to have a positive GDP in 2020.
By lowering case counts so much, these countries were able to fully reopen their economies early rather than having to wait for vaccines to become widely available. And when they reopened, they reopened: even the most fearful and reluctant felt confident returning to everyday life.
This has never been the case in America, where we have seen tens of thousands of daily cases even at the absolute best moments of containment. Those most vulnerable, or even just fearful, have never had an environment where they felt comfortable returning to everyday life. Even those who feel comfortable going out when cases are low are forced back inside when yet another surge occurs the next month.
As a result, we have reaped an inconsistent, incomplete economic recovery, with growth completely dependent on the state of a rapidly mutating disease. This is already evident in the recently released August jobs report, which showed an unexpected dropoff in job gains from previous following the surge of the Delta variant.
It is hard to miss the irony here. Our laissez faire approach, intended on saving the system from COVID-induced destruction, may have ended up crippling it for years to come by making the disease a permanent issue. It is even harder not to feel frustrated with the choices made at the beginning of the pandemic, when all of these issues could have been nipped in the bud.
Unfortunately, the genie cannot be put back into the bottle. Until America reaches herd immunity through vaccinations, both the economy and the state of public health will be at the mercy of COVID, as it has for the last year and a half. All we can do now is hope that we reach that point sooner rather than later and commit to never again choosing this path during the next crisis.
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