We don’t envy Gov. Jared Polis. He needs to reopen the economy before we reach a point of irreparable harm that causes suffering and death. He needs to do so while preventing the spread of a deadly virus. His ability to walk this line will create a historical measure of his leadership skills.
Oncologists know the fine line between killing cancer and the patient. Sometimes they push the limits with radiation and chemo, doing substantial harm to a patient for the greater good of killing the disease. Knowing when to taper the treatment combines science, risk assessment and old-fashioned good judgment.
As COVID-19 tries to kill, we try confounding the foe with extreme social distancing. It creates a seemingly intractable conundrum. We are pushing the limits of what our economy can take, going right up to the line of a cure that is worse than the disease.
Economic activity pays for everything. It defines our lifestyles. No amount of government checks in the mail has much value if people are not producing goods, services, and commodities that give money its value.
We have heard about business owners saying they cannot reopen after the orders to close are lifted. They cannot recover from losing revenue for weeks. In some cases, the shelf lives of inventories expired long ago. Farmers can’t recoup the costs of crops left in fields or milk dumped in lagoons because restaurants and schools are closed. We are bleeding.
If this continues much longer, the cure will almost certainly kill the patient. Poverty kills. We can talk about agencies coming to our rescue, but Colorado’s government anticipates a budget shortfall amounting to billions.
That threatens Medicaid, education, transportation, public safety and everything else we pay the state to provide.
Shuttered businesses and people out of work do not fund governments. The federal government can print unlimited money, but the value of a dollar depends on balancing the currency supply with the economy’s production. Too much capital chasing too few goods and services will reduce the value of the currency.
Gov. Polis should consider lifting the stay-at-home order for healthy, age-appropriate individuals who are not at high risk of dying from the virus. Maintain extraordinary standards of protection for pregnant women, newborns, senior citizens, younger people with specified health complications, and others deemed high risk.
Allow “noncritical” businesses to reopen with the same advisories given to “critical” businesses. People can return to work while washing hands compulsively, observing extreme social distancing, masking, and staying home when experiencing symptoms of illness.
This is not a solution to the coronavirus, and neither is economic suicide.
“There are no solutions, only trade-offs,” wrote the renowned economist Thomas Sowell. Trade-offs always involve risk. Traffic fatalities have increased substantially in The Gap on I-25 since construction began. To eliminate this death, we could close the highway or stop the construction.
We choose a higher risk for an eventual outcome. More than 88,000 people in the United States die each year from alcohol-related causes. To save them, we could outlaw liquor. If we must save all lives at any cost, we should forbid cigarettes.
We know the risks of economic depression are widespread poverty, death, and a health care crisis exceeding our worst nightmares. That is a risk we cannot afford.
To estimate the risks of opening the economy, we can look to Sweden for guidance. The former socialist country relies on nearly unregulated capitalism to fund what U.S. News & World Report ranks as the world’s third-highest quality of life.
With nearly twice the population of Colorado, Sweden has weathered COVID-19 while keeping open restaurants, shops, parks, bars, preschools and elementary schools. The government considers all businesses and workers “essential.”
“The strategy in Sweden is to focus on social distancing among the known risk groups, like the elderly,” said Emma Frans, a doctor in epidemiology at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, as quoted by Euronews.
“We try to adjust everyday life. The Swedish plan is to implement measurements that you can practice for a long time.”
Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, told the Guardian “it’s impossible” to maintain an economic shutdown.
“Unemployed people are a great threat to public health,” Tegnell said, as quoted in Britain’s Daily Mail.
Unemployment kills for a variety of reasons, including suicide. Work is good for the soul. Most people need to serve humanity for the sake of their mental and physical well-being — whether they mop floors or do heart transplants.
As of last week, diagnosed COVID-19 cases reached 12,540 in Sweden, which is 0.12% of the country’s 10.23 million population. That compares to 8,675 confirmed cases in Colorado, amounting to 0.15% of the population.
Time will tell how the virus spreads in Sweden. To date, it appears a less costly, less economically risky response has not caused mass infection and death. Having taken extraordinary measures in Colorado, we are in a good position to ease back into work with adequate precautions.
Gov. Polis, President Donald Trump, Sen. Cory Gardner, and other elected leaders have responded to this crisis with love and concern for the people they serve. They deserve respect for respecting human life.
With wisdom and the best of intentions, Colorado has pushed the treatment to its limits and approaches the point of killing the patient. It is time to skillfully taper the shutdown. Let’s safely resuscitate our economy while it has a chance to survive. Like an evil virus, poverty kills.
The Gazette Editorial Board
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