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OpinionEditorial

COVID-19 fight a balancing act

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In life as in art, in our personal behavior and in our professional conduct, in ordinary times and in times of crisis, finding one’s way depends on finding one’s balance.

That’s especially true in this time of coronavirus.

An increasing percentage of the country is sheltering in place, diligently practicing social distancing to reduce new infections, while businesses lie shuttered with potentially millions out of work. In the wake of our health care crisis now looms an economic crisis.

Is our nation getting this right?

We ask this knowing that there is no one right way to do this, that mistakes will be made trying to manage this growing emergency. We ask this understanding that these are among the most complex, consequential and painful decisions any leader will ever have to make.

Do you try to save as many lives as possible no matter the financial cost? Do you try to keep the economy on as even a keel as possible no matter the human cost? Or is there a smart middle ground that preserves both and minimizes the harm to each? When is the right time to pivot? We’re nowhere near there yet, not with deaths mounting and New York and Long Island identified as particularly hard-hit by the White House Monday. But the time will come.

It would be helpful if our tools were a match for our actions. But they’re not. Our continued lack of testing means it’s not possible to duplicate tactics used successfully by Singapore and South Korea: isolating positive test cases, identifying their contacts and testing them, isolating those positive cases and testing their contacts, and so forth. Until more testing can be done, it’s hard to argue for a more moderate approach.

One prominent study says 2.2 million Americans would die without any mitigation measures. Some estimates put unemployment claims at 2.25 million this week, with the jobless number peaking at 10 to 20 percent, even with a big stimulus package from Congress. The deep wells of sadness are for those who have died, and for small-business owners who watch their livelihoods vanish and workers who have no options for paying the rent. 

Before a pivot is possible, steps must be taken. Congress must produce a stimulus bill that offers immediate financial help to individuals and families struggling to pay for the basics of life, and that helps businesses on the brink, small and large, and requires that they protect workers and not enrich themselves. President Donald Trump should use his authority under the Defense Production Act to order companies to produce masks, gowns and ventilators and get them shipped to hot spots like New York. He should put the commerce or defense department in charge. Given all the bad information and unkept promises so far, we will have no confidence the system is working until those items start arriving.

The nation must first tend to its sick. Then it can seek the balance that will finally heal us. 

— The editorial board

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