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We Can Save Lives and the Economy at the Same Time

Congress should spend at least as much on the public health response to the coronavirus as it’s spending on economic stimulus.

Samuel Corum/Getty Images

With the mayor of America’s largest city desperately warning the new coronavirus pandemic is on the verge of overwhelming the local hospital system, leading to deaths from untreated illness, you might expect the federal government to be focused on slowing the spread of the disease and boosting the United States’ capacity to treat it. Protecting the lives of citizens is, after all, the most basic responsibility of democratic government in the Anglo-American tradition, enshrined in multiple state constitutions that predate the republic itself.

Politicos at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are working overtime these days, but saving lives doesn’t seem to be their primary concern. Instead, the main focus of America’s national political discourse these past few weeks has been how best to contain the economic fallout of the coronavirus-related shutdowns, an approach to economic policymaking as backward and self-defeating as it is morally repugnant. Democrats may think that they have no power to force Trump to utilize the federal government to provide understocked medical supplies to hospitals in New York and other hot spots, but in fact they can use Trump’s obsession with economic performance as a weapon against him.

No sooner had Congress appropriated $8 billion—approximately 0.2 percent of the annual federal budget of $3.8 trillion—for fighting the coronavirus on March 6, than it turned its attention to what many members, and certainly the president, seemed far more concerned about: stemming the illness’s economic fallout. Last week, while negotiations over how to spend at least $1 trillion on an economic stimulus bill were ongoing, President Donald Trump signed a separate $100 billion bill that invested in some direct measures to combat the pandemic, such as making testing for it more widely available and expanding access to paid sick leave, along with some funds to ease economic hardships, such as emergency food aid and expanded unemployment insurance. But the bill also carved out enormous exceptions to paid leave, essentially incentivizing sick workers to come in and infect their colleagues and customers. And even as that bill was being voted on, the White House and Congress were already negotiating on the far bigger economic aid package.

What the bills passed so far have not addressed is the terrifying shortage of ventilators, respirator masks, surgical masks, and hospital or intensive-care beds—all of which currently have doctors panicking. Right now, as reported by The Washington Post, ventilator manufacturers say they could ramp up production but haven’t received orders from hospitals because the government hasn’t stepped in to pay for the expensive machines. Instead, treating the health care system’s limit capacity as an immutable fact of life, the federal government has left it up to states to ban their residents from going outside, in the hopes of slowing the flow of the severely ill to a manageable level. President Trump has encouraged governors to find medical supplies on their own.

Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans quarrel over the contents of a now-$1.8 trillion stimulus package. Everyone agrees that checks should get sent to middle-class and working-class families, but Republicans want to hand out hundreds of billions of dollars to corporations with scarcely any precondition, whereas Democrats want more accountability from the private sector and more generosity for the less fortunate.

Under the Republican proposal that was voted down twice in recent days, hardly anything would go toward reducing the impact of the coronavirus, whether medical or economic, on the front end. One hundred billion dollars, or one-eighteenth of the total, is set aside for aid to hospitals, but much of that is for bailing out hospitals financially because the coronavirus is forcing them to forgo more profitable courses of treatment such as elective surgery. Even counting all of that and all of the previous two bills as health spending, adding up to $208 billion, that’s substantially less than the $350 billion in aid to small businesses and up to $500 billion to large corporations contained in the new package.

Infusing cash into any economy tanking under the weight of mandatory epidemic-related closures is wholly appropriate, of course. But the way Washington has thought about its coronavirus response indicates its misplaced priorities: Almost the entire debate about the forthcoming spending bill, from the halls of Congress to the op-ed pages, has focused on what would most efficiently prop up consumer spending—or related questions such as whether, as Trump contends, the cruise industry merits a bailout. (Spoiler: It does not. The U.S. will survive without its massive carbon footprint.)

At the very same moment that the federal government could have been ramping up production of necessary medical supplies under the Defense Production Act, Congress and the pundit class were already fully absorbed in debating how to buoy the Dow Jones Industrial Average. A group of House Democrats sent a little-noticed letter to Trump asking him to use this power to produce medical supplies, which he ignored, and Democrats from hard-hit areas, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Senator Chuck Schumer, are still lobbying him in vain. (Technically, Trump has invoked the act but declined to use it thus far because, as The New York Times noted, “The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the heads of major corporations have lobbied the [Trump] administration against using the act.”)

Instead of trying to reduce the economic damage of shutting down the economy for months, we could throw a larger share of that money at stopping the virus itself. If the federal government devoted more of this next round of stimulus to the mass ordering of enough ventilators, respirators, thermometers and so on for every American who needs them, the U.S. could save lives and bolster its economy by shortening the duration of the epidemic.

That’s especially urgent given the incipient countermobilization from the business community and its Republican lackeys. Conservative pundits at outlets like the Federalist and wealthy executives such as former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein are already arguing in favor of sending workers back to the office within a few weeks. Trump is threatening to lift the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance to avoid large gatherings, tweeting, in his typical all caps for emphasis, “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.”

Besides the obvious danger of encouraging social mixing while the coronavirus runs rampant, even on its own terms the president’s logic falls apart. Perhaps, despite his questionable personal health, Trump thinks he is immune to the coronavirus; but to those under no such illusion, being encouraged to go back to work, shopping, and ballgames doesn’t mean they will do so. Once Americans realize the risks—unfortunately, that realization will come too late for some—millions will stay home voluntarily, as many had begun to do before government mandates kicked in. Moreover, dead or sick people cannot work or go out and spend money in restaurants any more than those quarantined at home can.

To hasten the day when Americans can safely be let out of the house, the federal government should follow South Korea’s model in flattening the curve without destroying the economy: testing, and lots of it. South Korea’s 300,000 tests conducted so far is more than 40 times the per-capita rate of the U.S. Patients are tested in their cars, at drive-through centers, and in phone booth–like settings where they do not endanger health care workers. When someone tests positive, their recent contacts are all swiftly tested. Violations of quarantine, for those infected or suspected of infection, are punished with heavy fines. Even private businesses such as restaurants and hotels take customers’ temperatures. Through these measures, and the widespread use of masks in public, the country’s infection rate has plummeted from 909 new cases on February 29 to only 64 new cases on Sunday.

Surely doing the same thing here would make more sense than first choking off the economy, then spending huge sums to bring it back to life. A massive appropriation for building the testing kits—South Korea is making 100,000 per day—ventilators, masks, hospital gowns, and other items in short supply might also do more to stimulate the economy than handing out tens of billions of dollars to the airline industry. Building armaments for World War II famously helped bring the U.S. out of the Great Depression. And if people could soon fly safely again, the airlines wouldn’t need such a big bailout.

In light of the GOP’s intransigence lately, it may seem that Democrats are powerless to do any of this. Certainly, they are acting like the only things they can fight for in the stimulus bill are more equitable approaches to how the economy is revived. But in fact, they have significant leverage right now. The two things Trump cares about are his pocketbook and his poll numbers; with his own company heavily invested in travel-related industries, he needs a big stimulus package to bolster both of those. And Republicans need Democratic votes, in both the Democratic-majority House and the closely divided Senate, to pass anything. As former Obama White House staffer Dan Pfeiffer observed, “In raw political terms, Trump and McConnell need to fix the economy much more urgently than Democrats do. The lesson of the Obama years is that the party in power takes the blame for Washington gridlock.”

It would be easy for Democrats to strategically let the economy sink, as Republicans did when they opposed stimulus spending under President Barack Obama in 2009. Instead, they should use their power—while they still have it—to halt the pandemic and the economic panic at the same time.