When it comes to reopening, it’s not health vs. wealth — it’s health vs. health

An extended “lockdown cure” may kill far more Americans than COVID-19. That sobering reality underpins the Trump administration’s strategy to work with America’s 50 states to get the nation back to work as quickly and safely as possible.

When little was known about the virus in March, the prudent course was to lock down all nonessential parts of the economy, slow the spread and “flatten the curve.” Patriotic Americans fought this war against the China virus not by grabbing a rifle, but simply staying home.

President Trump’s actions, ably orchestrated by Vice President Mike Pence’s task force, likely succeeded in saving hundreds of thousands of American lives. While New York and New Jersey suffered unusually high rates of infection and saw their hospital systems stretched to the limit, the rest of the country weathered the attack.

This flattening of the curve came at great cost. Some 44 million Americans have filed for unemployment insurance. In the first three months of 2020, we shed roughly $75 bill­­ion from what was a robustly growing economy just 90 days ago — and are facing a further loss of $750 billion in the second quarter.

The federal government and the Federal Reserve have collectively committed close to $10 trillion in stimulus, and there may be much more debt financing to come.

The left has sought to portray the president’s aggressive reopening gambit as a heartless trade-off between “saving lives” versus “saving jobs.” That’s a false dichotomy. It’s about health versus health.

Yes, the China virus directly kills American citizens. But the virus’ economic shocks also kill indirectly through two lethal vectors.

First: High unemployment boosts rates of depression, suicide, drug overdoses and comorbidities associated with illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. We already know this from the impact of China’s dismantling of the American Midwest in the 2000s.

A 2000 study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics found that a ­1 point increase in unemployment is associated with a 1 percent increase in suicides. A 2017 Centre for Economic Policy Research study found that China’s joining the World Trade Organization, and the resulting job losses, were associated with rising drug and alcohol poisoning, crime and childhood poverty — and a fall in total fertility.

A second vector has do with Americans foregoing a wide range of elective procedures as a result of lockdowns, from mammograms, pap smears and breast-cancer surgeries to arthroplasties, colonoscopies and bone-marrow and lung biopsies. Tens of thousands received these procedures in early January; there were essentially none performed as of early April.

This is deadly. A two-month delay in receiving breast-cancer surgery is associated with a 10 percent mortality increase; a delay of a month or more in receiving heart surgery is associated with a 60 percent mortality increase.

The White House Council of Economic Advisers estimates that decreased health-care utilization for non-COVID illnesses during the lockdown has resulted in 1.8 million to 2.7 million total years of American life lost by the end of May.

The council also estimates that unless we resume economic activity by the second quarter of 2021, this may result in an additional 7,100 drug overdose deaths, an additional 2,800 suicides, a 10 percent increase in spousal abuse and 15 million years of life lost.

If recovery were delayed for another year, we may lose 16.8 million to 17.7 million years of American life, equivalent to a 0.05 year reduction in life expectancy per American.

This, then, is the far more complex calculus that the Trump White House has tried to manage. We can’t follow some of the pied pipers of the medical profession who would have us hide in our homes until the virus either burns itself out, we develop herd immunity or a successful and widely available vaccine comes to market.

We must balance health versus health: lives saved by a lockdown against many more lives lost or damaged by a bleak economy.

The president has made the courageous decision to move boldly forward to reopen. That’s real leadership. And if there is any leader who can help us quickly rebuild, it will be the president who, over the last 3 ¹/₂ years, built the strongest economy in modern history.

He can, and will, certainly do that again — and American lives will be longer and healthier for it.

Tyler Goodspeed is a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. Peter Navarro is assistant to the president for trade and manufacturing policy.

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