To the editor,
On March 18, 2020, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order closing schools while restricting mass gatherings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 27, 2020, Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow issued an executive order expanding police powers to enforce social distancing because citizens had not been complying with earlier government guidance. On April 2, 2020, Mayor Barlow instituted additional measures to help us adhere to the guidelines to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Gov. Cuomo and Mayor Barlow are trying to save lives. The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads by passing from an infected person to a non-infected person. What makes this virus particularly dangerous is that a person can be infected and spread the disease without knowing that they are infected because they have no symptoms. Stopping people from gathering in close enough proximity so they can pass the virus from one person is the very best way to prevent the spread of the disease and ultimately save lives.
I recently read a paper about the 1918 flu pandemic that described some really surprising lessons for us today. On March 26, 2020, Sergio Correia, Stephan Luck, Federal Reserve Economists and Professor Emil Verner from the MIT Sloane School of Management wrote a working paper entitled “Pandemics Depress the Economy, Public Health Interventions Do Not: Evidence from the 1918 Flu.” (The paper is out for public commentary and was revised on March 30, 2020.) This paper evaluated our country’s response to the 1918 pandemic and its impact on our economy. They found considerable variation in how quickly and effectively various communities within the USA implemented social distancing. As expected, they found that the social distancing resulted in a sharp and persistent decline in economic activity. However, their unexpected finding was that the cities that implemented the earliest and most aggressive social distancing during the 1918 pandemic not only saved more lives, these same cities also had the greatest improvement in economic outcomes following the pandemic.
We have heard a number of opinions arguing that we need to re-open the country and get our economic engines back to work for the sake of the economy. Indeed, our president has stated that the virus cannot be worse than the problem itself, even arguing that economic angst might even drive some people to despair, even suicide. However, this article by Correia, Luck, and Verner, suggests that once large numbers of people contract the disease and many die from it, this changes the economic environment introducing a great deal of uncertainty. This uncertainty then makes managers hesitant to hire workers and invest in their business because they aren’t sure when the pandemic will end, and it makes customers hesitate to go out and spend money for fear they too will contract the disease. Since it is the pandemic itself that upends the economy, the measures that most effectively target the root of the pandemic are the ones that also most effectively improve the economy.
We should praise our state and local leaders, Gov. Cuomo and Mayor Barlow, for their leadership and courage to tell us the truth. We should follow their lead and abide by the distancing measures that will limit the spread of COVID-19. The authors of this paper found that we have already performed the experiment of what to do during a pandemic, and found that the actions that saved lives also limited the economic impact of the pandemic. We don’t need to run this experiment again. Instead, we need to learn from our past rather than repeating its mistakes.
Please, stay home, practice the distancing measures recommended by our leaders, and stay safe. Also, please note that while we have called this practice “social distancing,” we should actually call it “physical distancing” while using the technology that we have available to maintain as much social closeness as possible while we stop this disease in its tracks.