Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

virus biz Crunch Fitness

The parking lot at Crunch Fitness in Champaign was nearly empty Thursday, March 19, 2020, after it joined a long list of businesses that were forced to close until next month in an effort to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.

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The coronavirus pandemic already represents an unmitigated disaster for Illinois and the United States, as much for the devastating economic impact it’s having on people’s lives as the public-health threat it poses.

That suggestion may horrify some people, who see the shutdown of daily life as most people know it strictly as a public-health matter. One can just hear them saying, “If these measures save just one human life, it will all be worth it.”

Well, let’s think about that.

Better yet, let’s hear from The Wall Street Journal on the subject. On Friday, it published an editorial that argued “no society can safeguard public health for long at the cost of its economic health.”

Further, it argued that the coronavirus is not the only threat to our national well-being when it comes to damaging or destroying lives.

“Even America’s resources to fight a viral plague aren’t limitless — and they will become more limited by the day as individuals lose jobs, businesses close and American prosperity gives way to poverty. America urgently needs a pandemic strategy that is more economically and socially sustainable than the current national lockdown,” the Journal stated.

What our state and national leaders have done, essentially, is pull the plug on our way of life, perhaps by necessity.

What had been a booming national economy is grinding to a halt, the extent of the damage not clear because there’s no end in sight.

“I think it’s clear we’re heading into a recession, and it could be deep,” said Jeffrey Brown, dean of the University of Illinois Geis School of Business.

He doesn’t quarrel with the tactics employed to limit the spread of the virus, calling them “necessary” as far as he can tell and maybe preferable to more lax alternatives.

“We take a big hit now, or we take a bigger hit later,” he speculated.

Larry DeBrock, a finance professor and Brown’s predecessor in the dean’s post, expressed similar sentiments, describing an economy in which “everything is freezing.”

“It means the economy is not operating,” he said. “Policy-makers have decided we really do need to have the shutdowns. That means everything we do has to stop.”

The Journal argued that’s not a viable approach for an extended period of time, that the human damage caused by a paralyzed economy exceeds the damage caused by the virus. It said much good has been done in limiting the spread of the virus.

“Yet the costs of this national shutdown are growing by the hour, and we don’t mean federal spending. We mean a tsunami of economic destruction that will cause tens of millions to lose their jobs as commerce and production simply cease,” the newspaper argued, contending that both big and small businesses eventually will collapse.

“First, they will lay off employees, and then out of necessity, they will shut down. Another month like this week and the layoffs will be measured in millions of people,” the editorial said.

Try to get your head around the scope of that kind of human misery.

It’s like a slow-motion train wreck. Hit the brakes at full speed and just listen to the wheels on the train cars screech as they try to come to a halt and then run off the rails in a catastrophic crack-up. How many passengers in our economic train will survive and in what condition?

“This is instantaneous — blow the whistle and everything stops,” said Fred Giertz, a UI professor who puts out monthly reports on the state of Illinois’ economy.

Washington is already is proposing a fiscal stimulus to ameliorate the situation. But The Journal warned that our impending crack-up is so big the consequences can’t be contained.

“... there is no amount of money that can make up for losses of the magnitude we are facing if this extends for several more weeks. After the first $1 trillion this month, will we have to spend another $1 trillion in April, and another in June?” it asked. “By the time Treasury’s small-business lending program runs through the bureaucratic hoops — complete with ordering owners that they can’t lay off anyone as a price for getting the loan — millions of businesses will be bankrupt and tens of millions will be jobless.”

Barring good fortune that suddenly changes the nature of the game, The Journal argued that after a lockdown period — 14 days or so — there should be “new guidance” for Phase Two of the coronavirus pandemic campaign.

“That will surely include strict measures to isolate and protect the most vulnerable — our elderly and those with underlying medical problems,” it argued. “This should not become a debate over how many lives to sacrifice against how many lost jobs we can tolerate. Substantial social distancing and other measures will have to continue for some time in some form, depending on how our knowledge of the virus and its effects evolves.”

Those are bracing words, and so is the Journal’s bottom line — if the current rules stay in place too long, it’s just a matter of picking our poison.

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

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