The Long Shadow of Pandemic Policy

By Elliott Detjen


The policy of pandemic is fraught with the art of nimble calibration. As cases rise, communities reopen, and policymakers quarrel, a dance around Covid-19 frames a world in flux.


Some leaders, like President Trump, have cautioned against a remedy more dangerous than the problem itself. Others, like Governor Cuomo, have declared the opposite, that his solution “is about saving lives and if everything we do saves just one life, I'll be happy.” The former sentiment does warrant scrutiny. But the latter has grave consequences that stem from a singular focus on the direct impact of the virus. Mr. Cuomo may be careful to note Milton Friedman, who quipped, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” While certain interests like the loss of human life at the hands of disease are critical, reactionary policy means nothing without considering the fuller scope of its application.


Shutdowns vary across the world, but they all share one fairly plain outcome: economic setback. This initial opportunity cost is evident, as experts revealed a 25.3 percent unemployment rate for young adults in the U.S. during May, shortfalls in GDP, and interrupted global supply chains. The U.S. economy contracted at a record 32.9 percent annual rate during quarter two. Naturally, many critique policy that prioritizes the dollar over public health. But deeper analysis reveals an embedded relationship between functional economies and saving lives.


A recent United Nations report unveils a startling insight. As a result of Covid-19 induced government lockdowns, “an additional 130 million could be pushed into starvation by the end of 2020, bringing the total to 265 million people.” Other estimations warn death from starvation could double—from a ghastly 9 million under normal circumstances. For perspective, the global Covid-19 death toll stands at roughly 705,000 at the time of writing.


The UN document examines this “biblical” phenomenon as it converges with already turbulent communities. Coupling the debilitating economic wake of self-isolation with humanitarian crises, the policy response of Covid-19—particularly by nations wielding great economic power—has profound implications for those beyond the arms-length of politicians. Agencies like the World Food Programme (WFP), normally bearing the brunt, are under-resourced and out-gunned, especially as the U.S. signals a receding tide from international participation.


Another report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) details the necessity of maintaining open trade. Keeping markets open despite the pandemic is necessary, it argues, to supply essential goods and boost the global economy. While policies by nation vary, the report highlights the need for international cooperation, transparency, and trust. Citing the closure of air travel, the OECD points to increases in shipping cost of 30 percent and 60 percent between China-North America and Europe-North America, respectively—preventing time-sensitive medical and food supply deliveries.


In fragile economies like Syria and Yemen, percentages like these spell catastrophe when paired with civil conflict. For developing nations like Kenya, the price of corn alone rose 60 percent over the past year. According to the UN report, 370 million children globally will miss meals usually provided by schools. The families of working foreign nationals in Haiti, Nepal, and Somalia will face acute hardship with the sharp decline of remittances. Save the Children figures 10 million young students across 40 countries might never return to formal schooling, accentuating wealth inequality. At the same time, girls face gender-specific violence and higher rates of teenage pregnancies during closures.


On the American front, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) national hotline experienced an 891 percent increase in call volume for March alone, and experts anticipate a surge in suicide mortality. U.S. waiting lists for organ donations are their own microcosm of camouflaged aftermath. Between grounded commercial aircraft, fewer individuals dying conventionally due to social distancing, and other factors, the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) revealed that transplants dropped markedly in early March. Compared to those taking place in the first week of the month, only half occurred in its last. Bioethicist Arthur Caplan of NYU Langone Health predicted during the heart of lockdown that “a lot of people may die on the waiting list, more than usual.”


In light of these cascading impacts, representatives from various nations have stressed the deadly nature of pandemic shutdowns on global industrial supply chains and its aftershock. Even the Executive Director of the WFP warned of “a real danger that more people could potentially die from the economic impact of Covid-19 than from the virus itself.”


The rallying cry of “people before profit” sounds logical and well-meaning during a pandemic that has swept the lives of several hundred thousand. There is particular merit in its principle. But while purpose may be noble, it is the outcome of policy that must be weighed—indeed, a bleak but necessary calculus.


For better or worse, a functioning economy bears great force in the security of life. The annals of legislation must reflect, or at least consider, the gross portrait of its impact—or risk an outcome far worse.

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