By Sudipta Sarangi
Sarangi is a professor of economics at Virginia Tech.
In the epigraph to one of his collection of poems, William Butler Yeats noted that in dreams begin responsibilities. Given the surreal nature of our current experience, I will settle for the more mundane notion that responsibilities come with freedoms. Spring has given way to summer but the siege of the coronavirus Sar-Cov-2 continues. People all around the world are hankering for normalcy and everyone is ready to go back to life as we knew it before COVID-19. At this time, only a handful of states are in the “Closed” category while the rest fall into the “Partially Open” category which just like Baskin Robins has 31 flavors. However, we are still in the midst of the pandemic, and even faraway places such as Greenland and Fiji have reported positive COVID-19 cases.
It is obvious that the real question is not whether to open up or not, but when to open up? In a country where we like to claim that every life is precious, 100,000 people have already lost their lives to COVID-19. On the other hand, my colleagues Shaowen Luo, Byron Tsang and Zichao Yang have estimated that the stay-at-home orders for the period March 19 to April 15 cost the U.S. economy $3,521 per person. Clearly, we cannot stay closed forever.
There are at least two additional reasons for not staying closed. First, it seems like many states have given up on trying to control the spread of the disease and have decided to open up! However, no state has opted to be in the “Fully Open” category, suggesting that the governors are cognizant of the dangers involved in opening up. Hence, most governors are opening the door to recovery slowly, couching it in what can at best be described as cautiously optimistic terms. The second argument is quite simple. If we keep the economy closed forever, there will come a day when there will be nothing to spend the money from those stimulus checks on.
Summer provides an excellent analogy for the opening up of the economy. When the temperatures are soaring, you turn on the AC in your house. Pretty soon things cool down and the house becomes pleasant. That is precisely what we have done — closing down the economy by curbing human interaction has helped us check the infection. No one can claim credit for this exercise of flattening the curve because it is simply as mechanical an outcome as the AC cooling a room. So, if you switch off the AC it will get hot again. Incidentally, outside the house it is still summer, and the coronavirus is still making its way around the country! The sooner we understand this the better it will be for all of us. Therefore, as states relax stay-at-home orders regardless of which flavor they opt for, we as citizens must be mindful. This freedom to venture out again and engage in economic activities marks the true beginning of our responsibilities: the burden of protecting lives our own and those we love is now on us.
No one saunters out on a hot summer afternoon; but if you must, you wear sunglasses, possibly some protective headgear and most likely you apply some sunscreen. Similarly, in the post-lockdown world, we need to follow all the necessary precautions to keep ourselves safe.
The decision to wear masks, wash hands, not go into crowded bars and shops — we need to decide which of these actions we want to follow and to what extent. Of course, it is self-evident that staying indoors in the summer is a privilege that only the wealthy can afford, not those who rely on hourly work.
So too is the case with this pandemic. Those who are economically the most vulnerable to the stay-at-home orders want it to end the soonest, but it is also these individuals (and ones in the healthcare sector) who will therefore face the greatest exposure to the virus.
There is one more thing. In a pandemic, it is not sufficient that one person or one state follows the safety guidelines. An infectious disease imposes what economists call a negative externality: if you get sick, you can pass it on to others. In order to prevent the loss of life, we need everyone to be heroes of exactly this type — people who understand responsibility and are willing to follow safety measures even if it means that they have to sacrifice something.