The Covid-19 epidemic has led to a catastrophic loss of American life, liberty, and livelihood. This wasn’t inevitable. A badly delayed and ill-coordinated response, together with a profound shortage of test kits, has pushed infection and fatality rates far beyond what they might have been. Mass physical distancing and social isolation, which have been urgently necessary to contain the virus in the absence of adequate testing, are wreaking world-historical havoc on the American economy. More than 22 million Americans are out of work, wiping out all employment gains since the Great Recession, and our economy could shrink by as much as 20 percent over the next year.
But mass death and economic devastation aren’t the only things hurting us. A regime of soft house arrest and restricted social cooperation is a catastrophe for the American economy because it encroaches on the liberties that make coordinated economic production and rising prosperity possible. Freedoms of movement, association, assembly, religious exercise, democratic participation, work and exchange are all threatened by mass physical distancing — whether enforced from above by law or from below by a mix of collective fear, solidaristic community spirit, and public shaming. Either way, it’s an abject disaster for the American way of life.
It’s no surprise, then, that ordinary Americans (who we cannot reasonably expect to be part-time economists and epidemiologists) are clamoring to re-open the economy and restore their freedoms.
But the Covid-19 virus is real. The epidemic is real.
As I write, more than 780,000 Americans are known to have contracted the virus, and deaths have exceeded 42,000 — approximately the capacity of Wrigley Field. The past two weeks has seen an average of over 2,000 American coronavirus deaths per day. Epidemiologists predict that total fatalities will surpass 50,000 in less than two weeks and that the death toll will exceed 60,000 by August. Mass social isolation has slowed the spread of the disease, but the longer it goes on, the more the damage to our liberty and livelihood compounds. However, easing up on physical separation and social distancing can’t undo the harm, because it does less than nothing make the coronavirus go away. Maintaining social and economic distance is the only thing currently keeping the virus at bay. Relaxing stay-at-home orders and withdrawing compliance from distancing measures will only restore the infection rate and death toll to a daunting upward trajectory. Thousands more will die. Americans will hunker down again, whether by choice or mandate. The economy will go into stasis again. We will not be free.
A well-coordinated surge in testing, contact tracing, and supported isolation is the only way to swiftly, safely, and permanently restore our liberty and economy. That’s why the Niskanen Center has thrown our support behind the Harvard Safra Center for Ethics’ bipartisan “Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience: Massive Scale Testing, Tracing, and Supported Isolation (TTSI) as the Path to Pandemic Resilience for a Free Society.”
The Harvard Roadmap is a plan for a rapid, massive-scale up in the production, distribution and analysis of the tests needed to support contact tracing and targeted, supported isolation at the scale and level of rigor necessary to safely and swiftly restore our freedom and return our country to economic and social normality. The report, whose team of authors runs the ideological gamut, emphasizes the urgent need to deliver at least 5 million tests per day by early June, to help ensure a safe social opening, rising to 20 million tests per day before August to get the economy back into full swing. Right now, we’re testing only about 150 thousand per day.
In addition to the establishment of a Pandemic Testing Board to coordinate an adequate supply of tests and testing infrastructure, the Roadmap’s phased approach to reopening America requires assiduous contact tracing and targeted, well-supported, temporary isolation of positive cases, as well as requirements that individuals be cleared to return to work and normal social life.
The temporary level of surveillance and regulation this requires is certain to strike many, many Americans as unduly burdensome, and even outright oppressive. That’s why it’s absolutely critical to bear in mind that the fleeting infringement of liberty required to effectively implement the plan pales in comparison to the egregious injury indefinite lockdowns and stay-at-home orders inflict on our basic freedoms and material welfare. The authors of the Roadmap focus on standing up a test-and-trace regime in a way that minimizes encroachment on privacy and other individual and civil rights. If you’re as desperate as I am to get America back to work, and back in the pews, as quickly as possible and with the absolute minimum of attendant death, illness, and economic damage, this is the plan for you.
It can be tempting to think that there must be some other way to return to a semblance of normality, but the weight of the evidence strongly suggests that there isn’t. It’s natural to resent painful trade-offs, which can make us receptive to magical thinking from iconoclasts and panderers who suggest that a relatively painless alternative to the rock and the hard place is hiding behind a malign conspiracy of stifling groupthink and elite concealment. It’s impossible to overstate how dangerous, irresponsible, and anti-social it is to indulge this impulse in the midst of an once-in-a-century pandemic that has already wiped out the population of a small city and continues to kill thousands of Americans each day. It bears repeating, and repeating again, that reopening America without the resources and infrastructure needed for sufficient testing, contact tracing, and targeted, supported isolation risks new, deadly outbreaks and reversion to mass social isolation, which will only compound the enormous losses of life, liberty, and livelihood we have already suffered.
“Most deaths from the 1918 Flu came during its second wave,” Steven Berry and Zack Cooper, Yale economists, observe in a new paper. “A second substantial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US would trigger a second large-scale lockdown and necessitate another round of costly stimulus. This would be a body blow to an already reeling economy — to say nothing of the devastating health consequences.”
This is a mistake we absolutely must not make. You may be hearing all sorts of noise on the news and social media from people who profit from manufactured controversy, but there’s no real ideological or partisan disagreement here. That’s why conservative nationalists, libertarians, moderates, liberals and progressives have all come together to forge a credible plan to get on top of the virus and get America out of the house, back to work, back to school, and back to church.
Please read “The Roadmap for Pandemic Resilience,” share it broadly, pester your political representatives about it, and do anything else you can, large or small, to recruit the political will to bring a mass test-and-trace plan to life, if not this one. There’s no better, safer, faster path out of his long, national nightmare. Each day we delay, our losses mount, and the prospects for a speedy restoration of freedom and prosperity dim. Yes, getting to 20 million tests a day by August is a big lift, but we can do it. Looking back from the sunlit side of the mountain, we’ll be glad we did.