LAWRENCE: The Economic Shutdown’s Impact Could Be Worse Than The Coronavirus

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Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that the shutdowns implemented to stop the spread of coronavirus may end up causing far more deaths and economic damage than the virus itself. You can find a counterpoint here, where Charles Kolb argues that the medical experts made predictions about the virus with the best evidence they had at the time and the shutdowns were necessary in order to protect American lives.

The coronavirus has taken a terrible toll on human life around the globe and still has the potential to be far more damaging. Already, more than 190,000 people worldwide, including 50,000 Americans, have died from COVID-19 — and because of its high degree of contagion, that number could grow quickly.

In the face of this pandemic, it’s incumbent on policymakers to help chart a path that will minimize the loss of life. To that end, the governments of most countries have imposed some degree of shutdowns on commercial society. On balance, however, this could ultimately prove to be the most destructive path.

Almost eight billion people, who all have ongoing needs, live on this planet. Government-imposed shutdowns are constraining our ability to meet those needs. Although shutdown orders issued by most cities and states in the U.S. have made exemptions for certain jobs and industries they consider “essential” such as grocery stores and farmers, the arbitrary designations of “essential” versus “non-essential” are not workable for very long. All businesses are eventually connected within our economic ecosystem and removing some of them significantly harms the whole system.

For instance, as an accountant, I consult with a manufacturer of medical supplies that is permitted to remain open during this time. The manufacturing operation relies on a series of vendors to supply raw materials, packaging, machine parts and service and other items. Unfortunately, not all of these vendors are permitted to remain open, so the manufacturer has operated at reduced capacity and will eventually need to cease operations once some critical supplies are depleted—even though it makes medical supplies that are in high demand.

This is not an isolated example. Closures of ethanol plants have led to a shortage of carbon dioxide, which is necessary for food and water treatment in many parts of the country. “Several [water plants] had received initial notification from their vendors that their supply would be restricted to 33% of normal,” a document from Washington state obtained by The Guardian said.

The global food supply chain has already been acutely impacted by closures in the Southern Hemisphere, where it is now harvest time. Many farmers in the region have been unable to move their products to market due to train and shipping closures as well as labor shortages. Immigration restrictions have imperiled the labor supply for American agriculture during planting season. And after some employees contracted COVID-19, several beef- and pork-processing plants have been closed across the U.S., leading to a potential shortage of meat — even though the Food and Drug Administration says, “Currently there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19.”

The United Nations warned this week that the world is on “the brink of a hunger pandemic,” in part because of the disruptions to the global food supply chain. David Beasley, director of the United Nations World Food Program, said the world could be facing “multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months.”

The organization worries that 130 million people may be at risk of starvation this year alone. Even the most pessimistic predictions of COVID-19 fatalities do not approach that figure. “In a worst-case scenario, we could be looking at famine in about three dozen countries, and in fact, in 10 of these countries we already have more than one million people per country who are on the verge of starvation,” Beasley said. “Supply chains have to keep moving if we are going to overcome this pandemic and get food from where it is produced to where it is needed.”

That’s why we need to get as many people back to work as quickly and safely as possible. There are other legitimate concerns about the way shutdowns have been enforced that may encroach on the Americans’ constitutional rights, but just on the balance of protecting human life, as the UN notes, prolonged economic shutdowns can end up being worse than the threat from the coronavirus.

Governments and businesses can take reasonable safety measures to ensure our necessary economic activity doesn’t unnecessarily endanger anyone. Many businesses are fully capable of extending remote work options, maintaining safe social distances between employees on the job and strengthening their cleaning routines.

Further, we can help limit the danger through additional testing, which the federal government has consistently bungled from the very beginning of this process, and contact tracing. Current testing methods and levels also mean it’s possible to identify individuals who have already recovered from the virus and allow them to move and work more freely than individuals from high-risk groups or individuals who have not yet contracted the disease.

COVID-19 has had a tragic impact on the world, but prolonged economic shutdowns risk creating famines and economic devastation on an even larger scale. We must get back to our lives so we can produce the things necessary for each other’s welfare and survival.

Geoffrey Lawrence is a senior policy fellow at the Reason Foundation.