The most prominent physicians on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Drs. Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci, have generally managed to outmaneuver members of the media who have attempted to inveigle them into undercutting the president by endorsing a nationwide lockdown. Birx insists that Trump trusts the American people to follow current mitigation strategies, and Fauci has maintained a similarly diplomatic position. The latter, however, was finally duped into saying something stupid last Thursday during a Today Show interview when asked if he agreed with Surgeon General Jerome Adams that recently released White House coronavirus guidelines should be interpreted as a national stay-at-home order:
Well yeah, if you look at what’s in those 30-day recommendations of the guidelines, that’s essentially what it is. I mean I know it’s difficult, but we’re having a lot of suffering, a lot of death, this is inconvenient from an economic and a personal standpoint, but we just have to do it.
The good doctor’s deployment of the term “inconvenient” betrays an almost childlike naïveté concerning the profoundly negative effect a nationwide lockdown would have on the day-to-day lives of most Americans. The devastation wrought by the statewide lockdowns that have already been imposed across most of the country will take years to recover from if they are maintained until the end of April. Moreover, the damage will not be limited to an economic contraction resulting in bankruptcy and high unemployment. It will have a profound effect on public health. It will quite literally kill people pursuant to increased incidences of suicide, hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer.
This will seem implausible to the majority of the public, who think of “economics” as a collection of abstractions involving such things as the Phillips curve, the circular flow of income, and the efficacy of Monetarism versus Keynesianism. Even though ordinary Americans feel the very real effects of economic fluctuations and frequently lament “the bad economy,” few have experienced anything resembling a genuine economic collapse. We routinely see references to “the Great Recession of 2008–2010,” but that was only a hiccup compared to what we are about to endure pursuant to coronavirus mitigation efforts. Yet even that fabled downturn has been linked to numerous cancer deaths in a 2016 Harvard study:
The economic crisis of 2008-10, and the rise in unemployment that accompanied it, was associated with more than 260,000 excess cancer-related deaths — including many considered treatable — within the Organization for Economic Development (OECD), according to a study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Imperial College London, and Oxford University.
Like the current crisis, the 2008–2010 recession was a global phenomenon, and the “excess” cancer-related deaths includes fatalities throughout the 36 members of the OECD. The key factor that ties all of the deaths was associated with unemployment. The unemployment that will inevitably result from the current “coronavirus mitigation recession” will dwarf the 2008–2010 figures. In the U.S. alone, more than 10 million Americans have already filed unemployment claims during the short period since cities and states across the country began enforcing stay-at-home measures in earnest. Unfortunately, like the last crisis, the resultant carnage will not be limited to cancer. It also includes heart attacks:
The risk of heart attack may be highest during the first year of unemployment.… Researchers looked at 13,451 adults aged 51 to 75 who took part in the Health and Retirement Study.… The risks of heart attack associated with multiple job losses were of the magnitude of other risk factors, such as smoking, hypertension, and diabetes.
Unemployment is as bad for your heart as is smoking, and it gets worse:
A researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health analyzed detailed employment and health data from 8,125 individuals.… Workers who lost a job through no fault of their own, she found, were twice as likely to report developing a new ailment like high blood pressure, diabetes or heart disease over the next year and a half, compared with people who were continuously employed.
Unlike the individuals in this study, however, unemployment resulting from coronavirus panic comes with additional stressors associated with election-year politics. Responding to Trump’s oft-stated desire to get Americans back to work quickly, the Democrats and the “news” media accused him of being irresponsible. After he made the common-sense point that “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” they pounced. New York magazine probably wins the prize for the most hysterical title: “No, Trump Can’t Revive the Economy Through Human Sacrifice.” None of this BS changes the reality that there are real public health risks associated with a prolonged shutdown of the economy. The saddest is suicide:
In the United States, the suicide rate, which had slowly risen since 2000, jumped during and after the 2007-9 recession … we estimate that 4,750 “excess” suicides — that is, deaths above what pre-existing trends would predict — occurred from 2007 to 2010. Rates of such suicides were significantly greater in the states that experienced the greatest job losses. Deaths from suicide overtook deaths from car crashes in 2009.
Thomas Sowell famously wrote, “Only in government is any benefit, however small, considered to be worth any cost, however large.” This is essentially where we are in our response to COVID-19. Thus far, every projection of potential fatalities has been far too high, including the projections issued by the Coronavirus Task Force last week. We know all too well from past experience, however, what the human cost will be if we pursue mitigation strategies that result in widespread unemployment — as would a national stay-at-home order. It will not be, as Dr. Fauci suggests, “inconvenient.” It will kill more of us than COVID-19. It will be, as the president has warned, worse than the problem itself.
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