james166_Aaron LavinskyStar Tribune via Getty Images_uscoronavirustesting Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via Getty Images

Navigating the Pandemic Trilemma

The broad consensus of the COVID-19 era holds that measures to protect public health imply hard trade-offs with economic growth and political liberty. In fact, there are plenty of ways to adapt political and economic imperatives to policies needed to combat the pandemic.

PRINCETON – The coronavirus crisis is forcing a dramatic reassessment of how government and the economy function. As Matthew M. Kavanagh of Georgetown University argues in The Lancet, the pandemic has revealed a trilemma: it is impossible to have a medically healthy society, a healthy economy, and a healthy democracy at the same time.

The implication is that if we want airlines to keep flying and restaurants and pubs to stay busy, more people will have to get sick and die. On the other hand, if we shut down these activities, the economic downturn will be much more severe than the 2008 global financial crisis, with rates of unemployment similar to those of the Great Depression – and possibly much higher. Many of the businesses – especially small shops, restaurants, and service providers – that are closed “temporarily” will in fact never reopen.

In thinking about the nature of the current crisis, one can also imagine a rigorous and intrusive system for identifying infected individuals and immediately tracing their contacts. With modern surveillance technology, it is possible to determine who sat next to you on the bus, or who handed you a receipt when you went to the store. But while such information can be enormously valuable in containing infections, collecting it implies an equally enormous loss of privacy.

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