There is an understandable rising spirit of rebellion across Washington state against health experts’ advice to stay in our homes to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some 2,000 protesters stormed Olympia in defiance of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Stay at Home Order, encouraged in part by some of our Republican friends. We also saw that in various jurisdictions across the state, local officials are openly defying the stay-at-home order.
While we don’t agree with these approaches, we do understand and even share some of the concerns. The impacts of the economic shutdown are being felt across our state — especially if you are out of work. Officials are saying that a staggering nearly 1 million people could be unemployed in Washington by next week. Even those who are able to work wonder if economic disaster is a worse fate than COVID-19 fatalities, and still others fear that public-health orders threaten their personal freedoms. These pains, fears and doubts are fueled in large part by our natural suspicion of certain political leaders’ methods and intent. They are also based on the assumption that social distancing is diametrically opposed to economic recovery. At its core, it’s an argument that pits “lives” on one side versus “livelihood” on the other.
This “lives vs. livelihood” argument, however, rests on a false premise. To those who feel the urge to defy social distancing, we urge you to consider the lessons of history regarding the economic benefits of robust social distancing. The state of our economy will ultimately parallel our community’s health recovery, and the best thing we can do for both is to stay committed to reasonable social distancing efforts.
Our argument is not simply conjecture. History is repeating itself, and our past experience with the 1918 flu pandemic teaches us how various responses can help — or hinder — our economic recovery.
A new study from researchers at the Federal Reserve and Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that during the 1918 pandemic, cities that enacted social distancing measures sooner and for longer ultimately experienced faster economic recovery than cities that were more lenient with social distancing. Cities that loosened social distancing measures too soon not only saw more people die but experienced more damage to their local economies. This study found that while pandemics are unavoidably destructive to the economy, the economic damage isn’t deepened by increased social distancing — it’s lessened, because containing the pandemic helps speed the economy to a full recovery.
This assessment is shared by economic analysts at Morgan Stanley, who argue that the most important aspect of recovery will be consumer and investor confidence that the worst of the virus is over. If we reopen the economy before that confidence is restored, it will be all risk and little reward.
In our region’s response to COVID-19, we are very concerned that if we don’t stay firm with social distancing, we run the risk of causing significantly greater damage to our local economy than if we intervened to reduce transmission of the virus. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield also has warned that a second wave of COVID-19 could be worse than the first because if it hits at the same time as flu season, it could completely overwhelm our health-care system.
History also warns that a second outbreak could occur if we ramp down social distancing too soon. Let’s look again to the 1918 flu pandemic. During the two-year outbreak, this pandemic killed at least 50 million people, with an approximately 10% death rate. However, certain cities fared much better than average, and others much worse. An excellent National Geographic visual shows that cities such as Dayton, Ohio, and Louisville, Kentucky, that acted quickly to mandate social distancing and stuck with it experienced much fewer deaths and avoided a resurgence of the outbreak. In contrast, cities like Spokane and Seattle that delayed social distancing measures and ended them sooner experienced a second peak that, in the case of Spokane, was worse than the first. Multiple studies show that by enacting measures to reduce physical human contact — such as closing schools, churches, businesses and prohibiting large gatherings — cities were able to stave off the virus long enough to produce a vaccine and to avoid overwhelming hospitals. We are already seeing evidence in Washington that this approach is working.
However, by the White House’s own guidelines, Washington state does not meet the “testing and contact tracing” criteria to begin moving toward reopening yet because we are still experiencing a severe shortage of testing materials. This means that if we opened up the state now, we would be fighting the virus blind with little ability to slow any further outbreaks. Without more testing, we don’t know how many people have died from COVID-19, who’s been infected and who has built up an immunity.
That’s why we so strongly agree with federal guidelines stating that only when we have the tools to identify and contain an outbreak should we start sending people back to work in close-proximity professions. Most important, we need broad, same-day testing, which will allow us to test persons with COVID-19 symptoms and place them in quarantine. The best thing we can do for our economy is maintain reasonable social distancing until we achieve this testing capacity — or else we risk extending a three-month pandemic and associated recession into a“double peak” event that sends us spiraling into an economic depression and kills a lot more people.
The good news is that hundreds of thousands of testing kits will come available in a matter of a weeks, and the capacity for antibody testing is emerging, which may indicate who has built up some immunity to infection and perhaps can return to work with less risk.
By shouldering the pain now, and perhaps for another month or so, we are avoiding a far darker economic future. Our economy will only be healthy when our people are healthy, despite our best efforts to simply will it to be otherwise. Every generation of Americans has fought their way through great challenges. We will be no different. However, our community’s physical and economic recovery will happen sooner if we stay the course just a little longer.