The Open Secret to Reopening the Economy
Areas that eased their initial COVID-19 lockdowns and now have surging infection rates are a testament to all that has gone wrong in the pandemic. The lesson from day one still holds: until the virus is defeated, there can be no return to normal.
WASHINGTON, DC – The future of the world economy is becoming clearer. At the outset of the pandemic, there were lively disagreements over whether the lockdown and other measures were warranted, or whether the economic costs were too high. Now, it is increasingly evident that economic activity will resume fully only after lockdown restrictions have been given time to work. Otherwise, COVID-19 will continue to spread, making a sustained and rapid economic recovery all but impossible until the arrival of effective, widely available vaccines.
When the coronavirus first began to spread beyond China, triggering an immediate, sharp reduction in the level of economic activity and employment where lockdowns were imposed, epidemiologists tried to educate the public (and the authorities, in many cases) about what would come next. They warned that the virus would not be sufficiently contained until its R number –the average number of people infected by a sick person – is less than one. At exactly one, each sick person infects one other, and the number of COVID-19 cases remains constant over time. An R number below one, scientists explained, could be achieved much faster with tighter restrictions and effective testing and contact tracing to isolate positive cases.
In locations where shelter-in-place orders and other measures have been all-encompassing, outbreaks have been stabilized, and the R number has dropped within just two or three weeks. In some places, COVID-19 cases surged exponentially early on, leading to self-quarantine being more common. And because a high percentage of people in hotspots complied with the lockdown recommendations and tracing and testing (likely out of fear), the epidemic curve was quickly dampened.