I suggested earlier that when the stock market, the one piece of data that Donald Trump really cares about and pays attention to, drops below the level that it was at when Trump took office, he would do something stupid in an effort to try and bring it up again. That point was reached on Friday when the index closed at 19,182 and after stewing over it over the weekend, yesterday in the daily press conference, he suggested that he is considering loosening the guidelines on the movement of people at the end of the 15-day that began on Monday the 16th, causing consternation among health care professionals.
He and his economic advisor Larry Kudlow are trying out a new slogan to justify this move, that “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.” In other words, boosting the economy (which in his mind is synonymous with the stock market) is more important than saving lives.
The extraordinary scene on Capitol Hill came as Trump expressed an openness to scaling back his efforts to combat contagion. Writing in capital letters in a tweet late on Sunday, the US president said: “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself. At the end of the 15-day period” – of White House guidelines to enforce physical distancing and other measures which began on 16 March – “we will make a decision as to which way we want to go.”
Vice-President Mike Pence, who heads the White House coronavirus taskforce, said earlier in the day the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would issue guidance on Monday meant to allow people already exposed to the coronavirus to return to work sooner.
The shift in tone could foreshadow a clash between a White House alarmed by economic paralysis in an election year and public health experts urging caution. The US now has more than 39,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and more than 400 deaths.
Observers noted that the head of NIH’s infectious diseases unit Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has had to correct Trump’s erroneous statements multiple times, was not invited by him to attend yesterday’s briefing. Trump is also saying this on the very same day that his own Surgeon General is warning that this week things are going to get bad.
US Surgeon General Jerome Adams on Monday gave a stark warning about the escalating coronavirus crisis, saying, “I want America to understand — this week, it’s gonna get bad.”
“As the nation’s doctor, I’m here to help America understand where we need to respond to this,” Adams told the “Today” show, saying that “every single second counts” in the fight against the pandemic.
“And right now there are not enough people out there who are taking this seriously,” he warned, pointing to people still getting together in parks and on beaches.
“It means everyone needs to be taking the right steps right now. And that means stay at home.”
This article lays out in unvarnished terms the ugly cost-benefit thinking of Trump, who is being egged on by the Wall Street Journal editorial board and some senators.
How many lives is the world economy worth? That’s not a trite oversimplification. It is an open question being raised by President Donald Trump.
He is itching to scale back on social distancing as soon as possible and openly wondering if this is all worth it. The all-caps was his in a tweet Sunday: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”
At the bottom of Trump’s tweet is a terrible calculus: How many lives is the economy worth? One thing we know, thanks to the groundbreaking work of husband-and-wife economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case: economic hopelessness kills people, too.
Trump made clear Monday that his preference is to open the country back up regardless of what doctors tell him. He said the shutdown will cause problems like suicides, and complained that the economy had been blazing before the virus hit.
The Wall Street Journal, for instance, has become increasingly critical of the economic clampdown: “… no society can safeguard public health for long at the cost of its overall economic health,” the Journal wrote in an editorial last week. “Even America’s resources to fight a viral plague aren’t limitless—and they will become more limited by the day as individuals lose jobs, businesses close, and American prosperity gives way to poverty.”
Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, questioned lockdown last week, arguing we don’t shut down roadways because people die in traffic accidents.
That led Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, to point out that the alternative is a lot of people dying. “I don’t think with any moral conscience you could say, ‘Why don’t we just let it rip and happen and let X percent of the people die,'” Fauci said.
Trump is using a hypothetical possible rise in suicides if the shutdown continues to make it look as if he is concerned about saving lives when we know he does not care about it. Suicide is undoubtedly a serious problem for people who will face economic and health hardships because of this shutdown. But relaxing the guidelines also carries with it the risk of a second wave of infections.
I am not sure if wiser heads will be able to prevail upon Trump to not relax the rules. Sadly, whether they succeed or not may well depend on what the stock market does this week, rather than on the judgment of epidemiologists and other experts on dealing with pandemics.