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Time to Go Back to Work

Ending the Economic Lockdown


A side effect, even a side benefit, of the coronavirus lockdown has been a cleaner, more tranquil planet.  Smog and traffic problems have cleared up.  If there was ever a time to visit Los Angeles, or Bangkok, it's now.  The water runs clear in the canals of Venice.  Elk and deer wander empty streets of ski resorts in British Columbia.  The rumble of airplanes overhead has almost vanished.


I know a few people who like this state of affairs.  They're working from home on laptop computers,  Their paychecks continue.  They suffer kids crying and dogs barking during Zoom conference calls, but that's about it.  They don't have to travel, and don't even have to go to the office to speak directly with their boss.  What's not to like?


What’s not to like is that we have damaged our economy far in excess of the danger posed by the coronavirus. 2.6 million have caught COVID 19 worldwide.  Meanwhile, 26 million people have lost their jobs in the United States alone.  Small businesses, especially restaurants but also lots of others, have been destroyed and won't reopen.  Life savings have evaporated.  The Gap needs to raise funds.  That capital won't come cheap, and it's only the tip of the iceberg.  Las Vegas has been walloped.  Colleges and universities are on the ropes.  Commercial property, especially shopping malls and hotels, are teetering.  If too many of them fail, then banks will follow.  Believe it or not, hospitals are suffering, not to mention their patients.  The hospitals cancelled surgeries and cancer procedures en masse, in anticipation of a flood of COVID-19 patients, which only materialized in the New York area.  In Oregon, population 4.2 million, which has so far experienced 122 COVID deaths, hospitals are sitting around almost empty.  We have embarked upon a course of producing tens of thousands of ventilators which we won't need (at least, not this time).


The lockdown injures those with low incomes disproportionately.  On college campuses, administrative staff and the professors remain employed.  The cooks in the cafeteria and the dormitory janitors have been placed on leave.  Salespeople in stores have lost their jobs, while office workers mostly remain employed.  Some of these people will find new work as warehouse workers and delivery drivers for Amazon.  For many, especially for older workers, the choices run from terrible to non-existent.


We haven’t heard much complaint yet. I’ve been surprised by this. I expected rioting in the streets. But the lockdown is popular! I think a few factors have come together in a manner which I did not predict:


  • We’ve been frightened out of our wits by news about the virus. I admit, it’s a real story – not fake news. But in the absence of good data, the press ran with the most sensational aspects of the story, day after day, entirely ignoring statistics which suggested a lesser danger, and frightened us beyond reason.

  • Amazon, Zoom and others enable many of us to live semi-normal lives from home. We have not experienced significant shortages of food or other vital necessities.

  • For those who lost their jobs, the government stepped in and did a bailout. It offered everyone $1,200, and unemployment insurance has increased from $400 to $1,000 per week.  I'm not complaining about this bailout.  I think it's necessary.  We enacted it in a rush and made a few mistakes, but the impetus was correct.

  • Some of the side effects of the lockdown, for those who remain employed, as mentioned above, are kind of pleasant.


Even after we reopen, it will take time for business to resume.  How much time will pass before you take your family to a restaurant or plan a vacation?  Will you go back into stores, or travel on business?  I predict that you will not do so immediately.  We need to lift the lockdown now just to get a gradual reopening process started.


We undertook this all in the name of fighting a virus which has so far infected 0.03% of the global population, and which seems to kill 1% to 3% of those whom it infects.  I see that the lockdown helped keep these numbers low, and relieved pressure on hospitals.  I understand that many questions remain about the illness.  I can't prove this, but I suspect that in time, we will discover that the rate of infection is much higher, and the danger of death from this virus is much lower than we currently see.  We will judge that the coronavirus was statistically harmless, even though it kills a few in a frightening manner.


I myself have some of the risk factors associated with becoming seriously ill.  The danger of landing in a hospital with respiratory failure scares me as it does everyone.  I read that 60% of patients who are placed on ventilators die anyhow.  Now I wash my hands a lot, try to avoid touching my face, and we self-isolate like everyone else.  Yet I have to look at my risk proportionately, and when I do that, I realize that while my risk of becoming infected is moderate, my risk of getting seriously sick and especially of dying is very low.  I think that our cure, a global lockdown, is worse than the illness.  It holds the potential for creating poverty, social disruption, war and death on a scale far beyond the danger of the virus itself. I think it’s imperative that we reopen our economies and try to return to as normal a life as possible.


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