Monday, March 1, 2021
March 1, 2021

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In Our View: No healthy economy without healthy population

The Columbian

While the impending election and the start of voting has grabbed most of the nation’s attention, the United States still is facing the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic turmoil. And that will continue to be the case long after the election has come and gone.

Amid the arguments over balancing public health with effectively opening the economy, the fact that the two are inextricably intertwined often is ignored.

“You have to get a handle on the pandemic, but there continues to be this argument about how we just need to open up,” Trevon Logan, an economist at Ohio State University and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, told “It is the case that opening up is not going to be enough, and what I mean by that is that opening up is certainly going to be a problem for us if we’re still having a pandemic.”

A healthy economy depends on healthy workers and healthy consumers. Right now, each factor is missing from the equation. The United States has had more than 8 million confirmed COVID-19 cases, including more than 100,000 in Washington, and the number of cases is surging in most states. Washington ranks in the bottom 10 among states in terms of cases per capita, both overall and over the past seven days.

Still, the Washington Department of Commerce warns that the economic decline brought about by the pandemic will linger. Director Lisa Brown says that if previous recessions are any indication, it will be three to four years before the Washington economy returns to pre-COVID levels, according to KNKX radio. The department’s Chris Green said, “When you see 100,000 new people accessing food programs, it helps us think about how we need to make the economy work for all folks when we think about recovery.”

Early federal action when the pandemic hit helped those who had lost their jobs, either temporarily or permanently. Most adults received a $1,200 stimulus payment as part of the CARES Act passed by Congress, and an extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits provided support.

But the CARES Act was passed in March, and extra unemployment benefits expired at the end of July. According to a study at Columbia University, 8 million Americans have slipped into poverty since May. Many Americans are increasingly at risk of having their utilities shut off, facing eviction, or dealing with food insecurity.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has increased wealth inequality. The latest estimate from Bloomberg is that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has added more than $87 billion to his net worth this year.

All of which makes inaction in Washington, D.C., particularly disconcerting. Democratic leaders in Congress are negotiating with the Trump administration over a coronavirus relief package, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had set a Tuesday deadline for getting a bill through Congress before the Nov. 3 election. That deadline has come and gone.

While Congress dallies on the economic aspect of the pandemic, the White House continues to fail on the public health facet. Reports say the administration now is promoting a “herd immunity” strategy — protecting the most vulnerable while allowing the virus to spread until enough Americans have contracted it to slow the spread. It is, in essence, giving up the fight against the disease.

Despite seven months of coronavirus disruption, the United States remains far from having a healthy economy or a healthy population. And it likely will stay that way for some time.