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In weighing safety against the economy, Trump offers a false choice, experts say

The president’s apparent focus on the stock market appears misguided, economists say, because the economic consequences of inaction are dire.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, listened to President Trump during a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic.Drew Angerer/Getty

President Trump’s call to reopen the economy would put a premature end to the nationwide social isolation efforts underway to quell the spread of the coronavirus, and could cause the entire health care system — and in turn the economy — to collapse under the weight of a crush of critically ill people, economists and public health experts said Tuesday.

As the crisis rages, the president has become increasingly at odds with medical and economic experts, seemingly fixated on restoring the high-flying stock market — an oft-touted achievement of his term. But that focus appears misguided in the face of mounting death tolls and economic consequences that may be even more dire later if the country does not take immediate action to slow the pandemic.


At the root of the president’s rhetoric on the issue, economists across the political spectrum say, is a false choice between economic growth and protecting public health.

“The loss of life we’re talking about exceeds wars we’ve been in,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton in Chicago, projecting the potential death toll if the virus were allowed to spread unchecked. The permanent damage that could inflict on the US economy “would be hard to ever recover from. As hard as all of this is, the cost-benefit is pretty easy,” she said of the current restrictions on American life.

Medical experts, many of whom are coordinating the response at Boston’s top hospitals, agreed.

“We have to get this under control before we can start thinking about saving our economy,” said Rick Malley, an infectious disease doctor at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Malley and others said one of the trickiest aspects of fighting this virus is the delayed onset of symptoms. Many people have no idea they are carrying COVID-19 until days after they have already infected others.


“That is why one has to be very careful about relaxing these restrictions too soon, because this virus will come back,” Malley said. “Many scientists and physicians and people like myself are really quite concerned that this idea that maybe we should loosen these restrictions is really massively premature."

But the president appears increasingly impatient with those restrictions and their ripple effects in the economy.

“We can’t let the cure be worse than the problem,” Trump said at the daily White House coronavirus briefing on Monday. He doubled down on that sentiment Tuesday on Twitter and in a Fox News virtual town hall, saying, “We have to open this country up, we can social distance ourselves and go back to work.”

Former vice president Joe Biden, the leading contender for the Democratic nomination to take on Trump in the November election, poked fun at Trump’s notion of bringing the economy back from the grave by Easter.

“That would be a real resurrection if that could happen," Biden said in an interview on MSNBC.

With the virus having claimed some 700 lives in the United States, and some hospitals becoming dangerously close to reaching capacity, the president has become increasingly at odds with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is managing the state with the largest caseload thus far and has sharply criticized the federal government for its response.

In his daily press conference on Tuesday, the governor of Trump’s home state shot back at the president on the notion that the economy is more important than human lives.


“If you ask the American people to choose between public health and the economy, then it’s no contest. No American is going to say accelerate the economy at the cost of human life,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo said on Tuesday that the crisis in New York is escalating at a pace once unimaginable, and he warned it is a preview of what will happen soon in other parts of the country. The number of positive cases in the state, now around 25,000, triples every three days, and the state is running dangerously low on medical equipment and protective gear that can save lives and protect health care workers.

Cuomo said there is room for a more refined public health strategy that is also a good economic strategy.

"Don't make us choose between a smart health strategy and a smart economic strategy. We can do both and we must do both," he said.

Medical experts agreed. Malley said it is also probably not correct, as some have suggested, that a massive two-week national lockdown would end the epidemic. He said it would likely take longer than two weeks and would be impractical because so many essential services would need to continue.

“We have to figure out a way to ... make this period of social distancing and of staying at home less damaging to society in general, but without, at the same time, making the virus come back or continue unimpeded," he said.


The shuttered economy is particularly disastrous for low-income, working-class people who cannot work from home and often do not have paid sick days so can’t afford to stay home.

Lorena Garcia, an epidemiology professor at the UC Davis School of Medicine who studies health disparities, said social distancing can help slow the virus as quickly as possible so those people can return to work safely.

“COVID-19 doesn’t pick, regardless of social class or social standing, however it does impact working Americans in a much, much harder way,” she said.

Economists said an attempt to return to normalcy would unleash an economic devastation that would be much worse than the damage the virus has already caused.

Even with eased restrictions, the pandemic would continue to roil our daily economy. Some businesses would struggle to operate as their employees got sick en masse, with some dying. Other countries, still committed to the measures public health experts recommend, might bar Americans from entry, hampering international business and trade. Many Americans would remain afraid of the virulent virus, and those with financial means would likely continue to self-isolate. Many consumers would continue to avoid crowded restaurants, stores, and theaters.

“A warning to the president: Trying and failing to reopen the economy before economic activity is organically ready to resume could have dire economic consequences,” Michael R. Strain, the director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a leading conservative think tank, wrote in an opinion piece for Bloomberg Tuesday.


“We can’t just go back to normal tomorrow,” said Betsey Stevenson, an economist at the University of Michigan who advised former president Barack Obama.

Stevenson said the White House narrative is misleading by making people think that somehow they have to choose between a high standard of living or their health.

“There is no such thing as ‘the economy.’ We are a group of people who get together and trade in order to improve our own well-being and welfare," she said.

Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.