“We’ve basically had a complete abdication of the federal response,” Gregg Gonsalves, an assistant professor in epidemiology of microbial diseases at Yale, told me when asked about the interplay between public health and economic struggles.
If we want people to take individual actions to help curb the spread of the virus, we also need to invest in their ability to do so. The government could send every household masks — a plan the Trump administration nixed early on. It could pay Americans to stay home if they feel sick, test positive or work for a business that should close for public health reasons, to avoid choosing between their health and their bills.
“If you want people to do the right thing you have to make it easy, and we’ve made it hard,” Dr. Gonsalves noted. States, too, have been told they’re on their own, with Congressional Republicans refusing to agree to the money Democrats want to send to help fill the vast hole left by the pandemic. In response, some governors seem to be prioritizing businesses over public health, handing out ineffectual curfews to restaurants and bars rather than just shutting them down.
But to help small businesses, and to return to strong economic growth, tamping down the pandemic still has to come first, even as pressure inevitably mounts on the incoming Biden administration to view vaccination, which will take months, as a cure-all that allows for business as usual.
“There’s no realistic prospect of fostering a complete and durable recovery until the public health situation has been brought under control,” said David Wilcox, an economist and senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
The last 10 months have given us a very clear message: We are inextricably connected to each other. We can’t stay healthy unless our neighbors can do so, too. The economy can’t properly function if Americans are sick and dying. The economy is only a means to an end, a way to improve living conditions. The economy should serve us — we cannot sacrifice our lives at its altar.
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