For our own safety, and as an essential strategy in defeating the COVID-19 outbreak, the American economy has been locked down tight. After so many weeks of self-quarantine and social distancing, unemployment checks and shuttered businesses, the grumbling has begun. Just how long are we supposed to stay locked up, anyway?
Everyone is eager to return to something close to normal, and to get the economy bustling again. It’s not just cabin fever — it’s life-or-death for some people whose businesses might not survive the lockdown much longer. President Donald Trump is eager, certainly, and he’s got an additional reason: He’s running for reelection, with a primary sales pitch being the thriving economy he oversaw. The longer the shutdown continues, the more likely the shadow of COVID-19 will mask what, underneath, has been a fairly robust economic machine steadily recovering from the last downturn.
But economics — and, certainly, politics — are secondary concerns. We must reopen the economy as soon as possible, but “possible” is a tricky concept. Too soon, and it risks giving away all the success we’ve had in “flattening the curve,” and risks sparking a resurgence that will take even more lives.
There is a key to unlock the economy. Rather than trying to desperately shake off the chains, the focus should be on finding and getting that key in hand.
In a letter to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone last week, County Legislator Bridget Fleming called for a greater focus on the need for testing, lamenting that “much suffering could have been averted” had the federal government taken steps to assure that enough tests were available. But her focus was on the future role of testing: “Authorities and the medical community will be hamstrung in their efforts to safely undertake a return to some level of normal economic activity without a great deal more capacity to assess individuals regarding their status.”
It’s about two types of tests. First is the simple test to determine who is infected with the novel coronavirus — crucial, since the virus can be asymptomatic in some people, which means an otherwise healthy person could be spreading the virus widely. But there’s also a new focus on antibody testing, which are blood tests showing that someone has, knowingly or not, recovered from the virus and now has immunity, at least for a time.
It’s simple: Until widespread testing, of both kinds, is available, the only recourse is social distancing and continuing the lockdown. So it’s all the more infuriating that there has been no urgency at the federal level to channel the vast resources available in a crisis to focus on this single necessity. Tests will take time to manufacture — what are we waiting for?
Reopening the economy is a worthy cause. Nobody opposes it. But it must be done correctly. How disastrous would it be to reopen prematurely, without the necessary tests to assure safe interaction, and then see a flare-up that would require a retreat back to the relative safety of a lockdown. That would be a worst-case scenario for most businesses, but particularly on the East End, where the summer season provides life’s blood to so many companies.
For that reason — the pending high season, with its inevitable influx of part-time residents and visitors — the East End has to be prioritized for testing once it becomes available. Beaches, restaurants, shops: They can all be engines for economic recovery. Or they can be places that allow COVID-19 to regain a foothold in a population that too quickly dropped its guard.
There are other issues. Testing must be truly universal, available to absolutely everyone — not just a few, and not just the chosen. If an antibody test, for instance, is a ticket for returning to work, it will be truly unfair if some workers must hand over their jobs to someone who was fortunate enough (or connected enough) to get tested. America is already deeply divided into two economic classes. This would use a health crisis to further that divide, and that can’t happen.
Also, the federal government must continue to provide for workers who test positive and cannot go back to work. The move to improve unemployment benefits, adding $600 a week to existing state benefits, was a bold and effective decision that bought precious time for a full lockdown. Such measures must continue to provide a safety net, and failing a national system of health care, the government should consider special funding to provide COVID-19 treatments for any uninsured person who tests positive. This virus will thrive if sick people are too terrified to quarantine and seek medical care, and instead continue a normal life.
Finally, testing is a key to unlock the economy — but it’s not a cure, or a vaccine. Even with testing, it’s essential that social distancing continues, by policy and practice. This is a powerful enemy, and our battle with it is far from over. It will take fortitude and patience.
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One fine body…