Ever since coronavirus blanketed our country, it’s been “many” versus “some.” Many people will get sick. Some will die. Many people wear masks. Some do not. Many people closed their businesses. Some lost them forever.
Today we stand on a new precipice. We tried a full shutdown and it slowed the virus spread. But once we reopened, the numbers shot up. Now we’re dancing with crisis levels again. A new school year is coming. And the boosted unemployment payments which have cushioned so many are about to run out.
Let’s be smarter this time. I wrote months ago that COVID-19 would ultimately turn into a chess match of “acceptable losses.” How many sick and dead would a society tolerate to keep its way of life? I believe that has proven true. Sweden took one approach. Japan took another. China took another.
The U.S., essentially, took 50 approaches, thanks to the lack of a solid federal response. And some states have worked better than others.
What happens now? The federal government is debating a new stimulus bill. Lawmakers are fighting over restrictions. It seems clear the nation cannot shoulder another complete lockdown. We would wither. Sink into a national depression. For better or worse, the American spirit seems to be saying, “There’s got to be another way.”
I’m no policy expert. But here’s a suggestion.
Protect the most vulnerable
Not every person is at the same risk, and not every business is subject to the same suffering. Why not accept that as truth and create a federal approach that addresses those who are in the most danger — while allowing the majority of people and companies to mask up and social distance our way through this?
Remember, when the pandemic first hit, the government threw a ton of money at it with very little analytics. There was the $2 trillion CARES Act, and hundreds of billions in the Paycheck Protection Program. Like a fire hydrant opened on a blistering hot day, those programs had a purpose, but they sprayed it everywhere. When a country as big as America moves that quickly with that much money, abuse is certain, and oversight is as clear as sunglasses smeared with cocoa butter.
Sure enough, we now know everyone from the L.A. Lakers to hedge fund operators got money from the PPP (some gave it back). Big companies with the right connections got help they didn’t need; small, struggling businesses sometimes did not. Meanwhile, countless individuals were suddenly pulling in more by not working than they had been working, thanks to weekly unemployment paychecks supplemented by a $600 per week booster.
Let’s be smarter. Going forward, with the knowledge about COVID-19 that we didn’t have before, it seems relatively easy to identify those who are suffering the most and those who have the most to lose. Why not tailor a federal program to help them, while unlocking barriers for others?
Let’s start with schools. Be honest. Most people want our schools to reopen in the fall, but concern over vulnerable parties — particularly teachers — is holding it back.
Why not identify the teachers most at risk? Those over a certain age. Those with underlying health conditions. Same for administrators and support staff. Pay for them to stay home this school year. Keep them safe. After all, our top priority should be to avoid deaths.
Likewise, if there are students who are truly at risk — or who live in multigenerational households — pay for them to have tutoring or online programs. It may prove complicated, but narrowly directed efforts are still more effective than the buckshot, 30-student Zoom classroom approach we (unsuccessfully) tried already.
This would allow most kids to get back into classrooms, albeit with staggered hours and social distancing guidelines. Enough studies are out there that show that kids, especially young kids, are at minimal risk of suffering from COVID-19 or spreading it. Meanwhile, we could resume something critical to our society — because school is more than just learning, it’s social interaction, it’s food, it’s safety for those with abusive home lives, and it’s the means to allow parents who need to work to be able to do so, which is critical to the economy.
Speaking of which …
Avoid deaths, keep economy moving
Let’s talk businesses. We now know not every industry is the same during a pandemic. We once locked down lawn service companies and smoky bars under the same rules. Today we recognize that is unnecessary.
Many companies have adjusted to at-home workforces without major disruption. They should continue doing so until we reach the Shangri-La of a vaccine.
Meanwhile, other businesses, such as indoor bars, health clubs and small theaters, are never likely to be safe enough. Rather than fight over it, why not have the government underwrite such businesses through the pandemic? Pay to keep them closed. It has to be cheaper than throwing trillions at every industry in America, and it will be far more merit-based.
It also keeps hot spots from emerging, and eliminates finger pointing at this bar or this club for somehow being responsible for hundreds of connected cases.
If we financially save the targeted industries, while allowing others to operate under strict pandemic guidelines, we again avoid the greatest likelihood of deaths, without grinding the economy to a halt.
And lest you think there’s not enough money to keep a handful of targeted industries afloat, remember, we already dispensed more than $2 trillion. Of the nearly 200 countries in the world, less than a dozen have entire economies worth $2 trillion.
Finally, let’s talk citizens. We know that older people and at-risk people have a far greater likelihood of dying than young, healthy people. This is not to say the young don’t suffer with COVID-19 and sometimes even die. It seems we read about a case like that every day.
But there’s media stories and then there’s data. And the data clearly shows above age 65 and particularly above age 75 or 80, the risks are exponentially greater.
So rather than a buckshot-and-booster approach to unemployment, where 22-year-olds suddenly got a pay increase to stay home, why not target relief to the groups most at risk? If they can afford to stay home for another six months, when hopefully a vaccine might be imminent, we will certainly save lives, while allowing most Americans to venture forward under health guidelines.
Use our COVID-19 knowledge wisely
Now, there are leaks in this approach, of course. No plan is perfect. There will be businesses that complain they deserve to be included on the underwriting list, and individual teachers or workers who demand to be better protected. The potential for abuse is always there, sure, but far less so than if we hoist another money grab over the wall.
More importantly, what’s the alternative? If we leave things as they are, we’re going to bob with every wave, we’re going to continue to point political fingers as to why our schools are closed or open, we’re going to battle against state governments over restrictions, we’re going to see businesses defy orders and county sheriffs refuse to enforce laws.
We’re going to continue to take a one-size-fits-all approach to a pandemic that clearly is not as potent under some circumstances as others. If the federal government is about to make another big move, it should be guided this time by avoiding deaths at all costs, and you do that by addressing the most vulnerable people and businesses, not trying to solve everything for everybody.
As I said, I’m not a policy expert. But, like many of you, I think I recognize common sense when I see it, while too many politicians, it seems, do not.
Let’s be smarter. Let’s not act as if we’re just meeting this disease. We know a lot more about who it hits, how it hits, and why it spreads than we did before. Our plans going forward ought to reflect that, and narrowly target significant help, relief and protection. It won’t stop the virus, but it will keep it from doing the most damage. Otherwise, it’s Groundhog Day for months, maybe years, to come. Who wants that?
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.