We are in the middle of a global pandemic. For many Americans, the coronavirus crisis has reshaped daily life. Schools are closed in almost every state. Over 95% of Americans live under shelter in place orders. As more people are affected by these aggressive measures, some have wondered if they are doing more harm than good – if the cure is worse than the disease itself.
Yet history has shown us that this is not the case. During the 1918 influenza pandemic, cities and states created a patchwork of different public health measures to control the outbreak, similar to what we’re seeing today. In the short term, rapid and aggressive public health measures didn’t worsen the economic downturn that was already occurring because of the pandemic. Furthermore and perhaps most relevant to today is that cities that adopted these measures quickly and for a longer duration had greater economic recovery after the pandemic. Taking the long view is critical.
Of course, these findings do not provide immediate relief for the many communities and businesses that are currently facing serious economic hardship due to COVID-19. The number of workers filing for unemployment benefits has spiked and economists estimate that unemployment will increase even more in the coming months. It remains of utmost importance that our federal and state agencies support our small businesses and the unemployed to weather this storm.
While tempting to do, lifting public health measures too early could lead to far worse health and economic consequences, which are inextricably linked. Hospitals, already running low and in some cases short on ventilators and personal protective equipment, will certainly be overwhelmed if we return to normal too quickly. Many more patients will get sick. The fatality rate will increase as front line providers are forced to allocate limited resources to critically ill patients. The overall consequences of trying to contain the outbreak at that point would be even greater. A more widespread outbreak could mean an even more prolonged shutdown. Instead of workers being laid off, we could see massive corporate bankruptcies. As more people either die or even live with long term impairments from prolonged hospitalization, families and loved ones will be left with even more crushing medical debt and long-term care expenditures.
The real danger to the economy isn’t public health measures and shelter in place orders, but failing to contain the spread of coronavirus today.
Now is not the time to let up. The number of cases of coronavirus in the U.S. still has not peaked. These aggressive measures are important because social distancing can work, but only if everyone does it. In Italy, cities that quickly enacted aggressive social distancing measures were more successful in containing the virus compared to those that waited.
While legitimate concerns have been raised about vulnerable populations with aggressive social distancing, it is worth noting that policy levers have already been applied in some states to ensure such populations like the homeless or those at high risk of abuse can access safe places to shelter.
Unfortunately, we won’t see the impact of these measures for some time since patients develop symptoms over several days to a week. If we continue to adhere to social distancing, it buys us the time we need to ramp up adequate testing, tracing and treatment, arm frontline healthcare workers with proper equipment, slow the rate of infection, flatten the curve to help our hospitals and ultimately help our communities both survive and thrive again.
Mark Chee is a graduating student at the Pritzker School of Medicine and the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.
Shikha Jain, MD, is a board-certified hematology and oncology physician and the physician director of media relations for the Rush University Cancer Center. She was named one of Modern Healthcare‘s Top 25 Emerging Leaders in 2019. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project and a TedX speaker.
Vineet Arora MD MAPP is the Herbert T. Abelson Professor of Medicine, a board-certified academic hospitalist, and Associate Chief Medical Officer for Clinical Learning Environment at University of Chicago Medicine. You can follow her on social media @FutureDocs.