Your Money or Your Life: The Coronavirus Dilemma

Must we save lives by confining citizens and thus bring the economy to a halt (the French stance), or would it be better to restart the economy at the risk of prolonging and aggravating the pandemic (Donald Trump’s approach)? Both, writes Guy Sorman.
Nurses outside the NYU Langone Health hospital, Brooklyn, April 26, 2020. © Vladislav Borimsky

Here we are, all on the same level, all nations and social classes alike, exposed to the deadly threat of a virus that is not Chinese – viruses don’t carry passports – but that did indeed come from China. Those most responsible for this pandemic are the leaders of the province of Hubei, then the Chinese president. These officials, because of their love of secrecy and their fear of bad news, hid the truth from their own people and then from the rest of the world for about six weeks. This cover-up proved to be tragic and decisive, since it gave the virus time to escape its site of origin, the city of Wuhan, and to infect all of China and then the rest of the world. This state-sponsored lie was then aggravated by the denials, carelessness, and incompetence of Western leaders, as if the pandemic concerned only others, or – as Donald Trump dared to say – that it would simply run its course, like a bad cold.

Then there is the fact that the governments of Europe and the United States were totally unprepared for a pandemic, despite the fact that such a disaster was predictable and had been foreseen for the last two years by medical experts, in particular by Professor Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota. This failure to prepare locked Western leaders in a terrible dilemma: Must we save lives by confining citizens and thus bring the economy to a halt (the French stance), or would it be better to restart the economy at the risk of prolonging and aggravating the illness (Donald Trump’s approach)? This conundrum is reminiscent of the old French expression, la bourse ou la vie (“your money or your life”), the choice that robbers used to offer their victims.

Having discussed the matter with renowned economists, in particular Paul Romer, Nobel Laureate in the United States, I believe we can escape this dilemma by adopting different, more intelligent strategies. The top priority is of course to rescue the sick. But what is the use of confining everyone, including people in good health and the immunized? In preventing just about everyone from working, massive quarantining is bringing about the collapse of the economy which will, in turn, have consequences for our health and our material and psychological well-being.

The alternative would be to systematize universal immunity testing, at least once a month, until the disappearance of the epidemic and, let us hope, the development of a vaccine. These so-called “anti-body tests” are different from others that simply detect the virus; they would show if people had already had Covid-19 and thereby enable them to return to work, which would be the best way to restore the economy. The injection of public money by central banks and governments brings an indispensable but only temporary relief, especially for the involuntarily unemployed. Only a return to work will bring the economy back. It would be cheaper to systematize universal and periodic testing than to hand out money to an unwillingly idle population.

Public spending, as well as funding tests and those who will carry them out, should support the massive production of masks and protective clothing. It is incomprehensible that two great industrial powers such as France and the United States should fall so far behind in the production of such simple items. This equipment should be made available to everyone who works in contact with the sick, but also to people in retail and public services who are exposed to the general population, such as police officers, cashiers, postal workers, bus drivers, and street cleaners.

In order to speed up the production of protective gear, innovation should be encouraged by public funds and by approving the highest prices for the most innovative equipment. It would be immoral to fail to compensate, even to enrich, innovative entrepreneurs because of anticapitalistic prudishness. On the contrary, we must encourage emulation and appeal to the enlightened self-interest of innovators. Again, combining these measures would cost governments less than paying for quarantining and forced unemployment.

This new strategy – testing, protecting, getting people back to work – would require an evolution in our habits. It should seem normal and public-spirited to go to work wearing a mask (the norm in Japan) and protective clothing while we await a vaccine. Under this new normality, we can expect some restriction of our individual rights, which have already been restricted by quarantine. Just as confinement is obligatory, telephone companies should be allowed to notify us on our cellphones (as in South Korea) that we are in danger if tested positive or not tested, and that we are putting those close to us in danger if we do not inform them.

This alternative strategy could quickly replace the “your money or your life” dilemma, making it possible to keep both. This would also put an end to pseudo-philosophic debates on the theme of “nothing will ever be the same,” which is little more than ideological blather and the posturing of those who offer no solutions.

Editorial published in the May 2020 issue of France-Amérique.