As the global economic toll of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic mounts, governments and businesses face stark choices choosing between the economy and public health. For example, the return of the Dow Jones Industrial Average in 2019 averaged 23.7 percent, but the Dow has amounted to 21,917 points at the end of March, down from 25,409 (13.7 percent) at the end of February. The American economy shrank at a 4.8 percent annual rate in the first quarter, the biggest contraction since the 2008 financial crisis. The rapid spread of the coronavirus has prompted governments to quarantine people locally and curtail cross-border travel. But public health and social well-being rely upon continued economic activity, especially the international provision of goods and services.
People have become more introverted and socially avoidant and less tolerant of foreigners. These changes in consumer behavior have yielded direct economic consequences. They include consumer hoarding and price-gouging of shelf-stable essentials, such as non-perishable food products and sanitation products, as well as surges in the demand and usage of Internet communications, streaming services and online shopping.
Many businesses have formulated responses to manage the crisis by avoiding blame, taking proactive actions to minimize associated risks and targeting consumer psychology behind the crisis. In the United States, for instance, consumer emphasis on safety and cleanliness and avoidance of infectious risks have created opportunities for manufacturers of consumer products like General Mills and Clorox, stores such as Costco, in addition to Internet companies including Zoom, Netflix and Amazon.
Contrasting views defending public health as well as stressing the continuity of economic activity present serious ethical issues for businesses and policy-makers. Some have argued that employees should resume work to save the economy from disaster, even if it poses danger to workers and means more virus-related deaths. Still more people are sympathetic to the protection of human life, despite the negative consequences to economic prosperity. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York — the state with the highest death toll and most confirmed cases — has reiterated that every life is worth saving no matter the cost to the economy.
How might the debate between public health versus the economy be addressed from a moral point of view? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights obligates nations to respect and protect equal human rights. The value of fairness demands that we take care of the sickliest, rather than those most likely to survive, and that we hire and retain the most able and qualified, not the weakest or sickest. From a utilitarian perspective analyzing costs and benefits, the aim of policy decisions should increase or improve both economic and physical well-being, maximizing societal interests and happiness.
On the other hand, the continued health of the global economy is imperative to social well-being and should not be easily ignored. Without work, the unemployed will suffer terribly and survive with difficulty. Further, with massive unemployment, consumers will have little purchasing power. And without consumers, the global economy will shrink. Finally, we need global commerce to provide the necessities to address the pandemic, including masks, medicine, testing kits, protective gear and other essential supplies.
Are societies willing to sacrifice lives to protect the global economy, thereby reducing unemployment and economic suffering? Or must we put our financial resources into global health, so as to prevent even more extraordinary losses? If employees return to work too soon, there will almost certainly be an exponential increase in disease infection.
Indeed, these ethical dilemmas are challenging but certainly solvable if we elect a middle course. It is not true that the only way to improve public health is by shutting down the economy, and the only way to improve the economy is by sacrificing public health. That is, we need not choose exclusively between sacrificing human lives or succumbing to financial disaster. The world should take a moderate and balanced approach.
In her opinion published in the New York Times, President Christina Paxson of Brown University called for college campuses to reopen in the fall. She argues that higher education is especially important to the economy. While advanced video-conferencing technology is available, students face financial, practical and psychological barriers as they try to learn remotely. This is especially true for more indigent students who do not have reliable Internet access or private places to study. With prolonged school closures, students may not return to campus or may be forced by their circumstances to forgo higher education.
President Paxson has rightly proposed that institutions develop public health plans based on aggressive testing, technology-enabled contact tracing, and requirements for isolation and quarantine, so as to control the spread of infection. While these plans would be unprecedented, difficult and costly, governments should support such efforts while meeting the challenges of making masks and medical supplies more readily available and addressing local community needs.
For now, ordinary people would be well-advised to stay at home and use masks and gloves while shopping and interacting with others. We should push our elected representatives to ensure more ample availability of masks, testing and ventilators. Let us maintain our own psychological well-being as well as care for one another by staying in touch with family and friends, especially those who live alone or are currently in quarantine.
Alfred E. Tsai is J.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin Law School. He graduated in 2017 from Columbia University, where he studied economics and political science. Do you think schools must be open come fall semester? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.