“Fighting the Pandemic” vs. “Saving the Economy” Is a False Choice

US leaders are split between a hard right that would happily sacrifice millions of lives to let businesses keep operating and a liberal center that seems unable to merge the goals of stemming the pandemic and meeting the economic needs of Americans whose livelihoods have been disrupted by it. The truth is, fixing one means fixing the other.

President-elect Joe Biden delivers a Thanksgiving address at the Queen Theatre on November 25, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Mark Makela / Getty Images)

For the past year, politics in the United States has been shuffled into a zero-sum game of either wrangling the coronavirus pandemic or keeping the economy healthy and strong. Almost as the virus began raging, various pundits and officials started weighing up exactly how much mass death they’d be willing to accept for the sake of continued profit. By November, voters had cleaved themselves into two camps based on these two seemingly separate ambitions, with each major party’s presidential candidate centering their pitch around one or the other.

The truth is, this was a false choice, and it still is. In the real world, the economic response is the pandemic response, and vice versa.

Even the most stalwart voices of unfettered capitalism have urged bold economic measures in the face of the ongoing pandemic. Early on, the Financial Times editorial board called for “radical reforms,” including “a more active role in the economy” for governments, redistribution in the form of “basic income and wealth taxes,” and the strengthening of labor rights and investment in public services.

This advice has been echoed by a chorus of officials from no less than the International Monetary Fund (IMF), for decades effectively a global payday lender controlled by the neoliberal elite. Over the last two months, we’ve seen: the IMF’s managing director insist that “lifelines for businesses and for workers are sustained” by the US government; its chief economist argue that, because of the multiplier effect from public spending, “fiscal stimulus is not just economically sound policy but also the fiscally responsible thing to do”; and a coterie of officials from its fiscal affairs department place economic policies like cash transfers and unemployment benefits next to public health measures like testing and tracing in importance, urging governments to tax the rich and profitable, and funnel the proceeds into “health and social safety nets.”

Prescriptions like these overlap with the advice from more left-leaning organizations like the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and the International Labor Organization (ILO). “Just as we need to redouble our efforts to beat the virus, so we need to act urgently and at scale to overcome its economic, social and employment impacts,” the ILO’s director-general said in September.

We know from experience that this isn’t just theory. As economists across the board have pointed out, the $600 extra per week that Americans were getting in federal unemployment insurance for four months, to allow people to observe anti-pandemic stay-at-home orders while ensuring they didn’t tumble into poverty in the middle of an economic shutdown, was the only reason the US economy didn’t collapse. The money kept the consumer spending that undergirds the economy flowing at nearly pre-pandemic levels, as this July study from JPMorgan Chase showed.

As everyone from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute to the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics has argued, these and other policies that put spending money into the pockets of poor and other working people would be a boon for the economy. It’s why even Forbes magazine — which spent the Great Recession making the case against unemployment insurance — championed extending the unusually generous unemployment program this time around.

But there’s more than just an economic dimension to these policies. Anti-poverty programs like the extended unemployment insurance — by allowing people to afford proper nutrition, pay for health care and protective items, avoid taking risky jobs, escape unsanitary and crowded housing, and so much more — are also vital for containing the spread of the virus.

This applies to so much more than just this one policy. Preventing mass evictions and housing the homeless isn’t just a moral imperative. It also helps prevent the spread of the pandemic, which, as the CDC has studied and advised, homeless communities are particularly vulnerable to. A Medicare for All system would not only solve a long-running health and household income crisis, it would also remove a key roadblock to getting preventive treatment and prevent the countless deaths caused by delaying care to avoid medical bills or from festering health problems that worsen coronavirus infection. You could make the same point about everything from environmental to housing policy.

Unfortunately, this basic insight seems unattainable to most of the people meant to be running the United States. The Right is, as per usual, way off the deep end, thanks to a mix of ideological zealotry and typically black-hearted ruthlessness. Having secured a massive corporate bailout in the first few rounds of pandemic relief bills, Republicans have, particularly after the election, dragged their feet on another stimulus bill, narrowing its size and continuing to oppose unemployment insurance, despite the pleas of economists and even as economic conditions take a nosedive.

On the liberal side, meanwhile, incoming president Joe Biden seems to have learned nothing from his general election underperformance, continuing to silo the economic and health response just as he did during the campaign.

The seven-point plan “to beat COVID-19 and get our country back on track” that Biden released shortly before the election focuses exclusively on technocratic, logistical elements of containing the virus — upping testing and tracing, producing more protective equipment, vaccine distribution, creating various task forces and government agencies, and so on — and includes almost nothing about the economic issues that are critical to the scope of this crisis. At this stage, it’s not even clear if a thus-far noncommittal Biden is going to extend and strengthen Donald Trump’s eviction moratorium, a repeat of the election, when Trump issued the order a month after Biden failed to include it in his emergency housing package.

None of that may matter now; other than asking Democrats to vote for the truncated stimulus bill now on offer, Biden seems to have largely taken a back seat in the current negotiations. But it will soon enough. Biden has promised more relief to come once he’s inaugurated, and it’s still more than likely that even once vaccines start being rolled out, the pandemic will continue to be a serious concern long into his presidency. Beyond that, who knows how long it will be before the next pandemic strikes.

Thus far, Biden’s public messaging suggests he’ll remain reluctant or unable to fuse the economic and public health elements of the current crisis to sell an ambitious response to the public, something even his centrist running mate was able to do before she tethered herself to his political fortunes. And the alternative? A Republican Party that is as reluctant to lift a finger to help its own people as it is disdainful of science and simple common sense.

But don’t let the shortsightedness of the country’s ossified major parties fool you: as with climate change, the choice isn’t between dealing with a slow-burning crisis and creating a strong, just economy. To do one properly is to do the other. The task is forcing the kind of political change that ensures those at the top understand that.