No matter how intently we daydream about a future where danger recedes and things go back to normal, life after coronavirus will not be the same as life before it. But some societies will fare better than others at preserving the things that defined them before pandemic shut down their cultural and economic lives. The nations that prepared for and contained coronavirus have been far less disrupted than those, like ours, that did not. But even among the countries now indefinitely quarantined, the ones that adhere to a basic organizing principle—to do what must be done to overcome coronavirus as unharmed as possible—will look more like they did just a few weeks ago than countries that take a more disorganized and incoherent approach.
A number of European governments slept on the risk of pandemic, but have since taken steps—nationalizing income, suspending rent collection—designed to allow workers and their employers to hunker down for as long as is necessary, then re-emerge and resume business as usual. Or as close to usual as possible.
Then there’s us.
The U.S. began its response in a state of denial about how severely the virus would hurt the country, and has only begun to catch up to the reality: a national epidemic, overwhelmed health systems, mass unemployment. Then, when President Trump and Congress reached a point of quasi-acceptance, they didn’t allow clear thinking about what the goal for America should be to guide their approach to writing emergency legislation. The CARES Act, which became law this month, took important steps that sort of mimic the European recovery model, but not enough of them, and each one seemingly too small.
Lawmakers are now contemplating a fourth response bill, and flooding the public debate with yet more helter-skelter policy ideas—reinstating the state-and-local tax deduction, rebuilding physical infrastructure—that don’t stem from any clear sense of what overcoming the immediate crisis will entail. The CARES Act will prove inadequate if Congress doesn’t do more, but it could buy Congress the time it needs to implement the measures that will allow the country to recover as quickly as possible—and even come out the better for it.
The central economic provisions of the CARES Act include a substantial expansion of unemployment insurance, one-time checks to working, and middle-class individuals and families, a $500 billion corporate bailout, $150 billion in transfers to state and local governments, and a $366 billion program to provide loans to affected small-businesses—loans that will be forgiven if the recipients maintain their payrolls.
You can see here a passing resemblance to more coherent programs abroad. Small business owners can get free money from the government to make rent and pay workers, which will in turn limit job losses. Those who lose their jobs anyhow can draw on newly generous unemployment benefits. Cash infusions to tens of millions of people will increase demand, which has collapsed. There is a vision in there, somewhere, though no program like this will ever work as idealized. Some business owners will choose to shutter their companies, furloughed and laid off workers will move on, skills will deteriorate, people will die. But the main problems with the CARES Act are that its economic measures are inadequate, and does woefully little to mobilize the country to actually defeat the virus, an omission that increases the economic toll in turn.
The next coronavirus response bill will probably include a lot of stuff, but it should be principally designed to address those two shortcomings.
First: remove the fiscal constraints. It’s hard to know how much the CARES Act will cost, because we don’t know how long the crisis will last and how many people will be unemployed. The consensus estimate is $2.2 trillion. But the correct amount is “however much is necessary to succeed.” $366 billion won’t be enough to save all the small businesses across the country that have been and will be ground to a halt. The program shouldn’t have a price tag; it should be open-ended in cost, and set to expire only when social distancing guidelines have been withdrawn. The unemployment expansion is better designed, but it, too, is unnecessarily limited. The extension of benefits to gig workers should be permanent; the bolstered benefits themselves should not be scheduled to scale down by date-certain; they should phase down only when the economic crisis is behind us, and then phase back up again automatically if and when crisis returns. Paid sick leave (a measure in the second coronavirus response bill) should be universal. And why are those checks one time only? Send more.
Those modifications would create some certainty that the duration of the crisis won’t overwhelm us. They would also moot the political risk—no, certainty—that Republicans will short-circuit the rescue if Democrats win the election in November. But they should be paired with measures designed to make the duration of the emergency as short as possible, no matter which party’s in power.
What would a perfect, comprehensive program to curtail the public-health crisis look like? I have no idea! But there are some incredibly obvious steps the country should already be taking.
We know we need a dramatic surge in testing and tracing capacity, to better control the spread of the virus. We know we need the rapid deployment of antibody testing, to determine who has already contracted and cleared the virus without ever getting diagnosed. Neither of those goals can be met without money and federal leadership. Testing and treatment for coronavirus should be free to the insured and uninsured alike. Trump’s bizarre, perhaps malicious unwillingness to conscript companies into the manufacturing of medical equipment, surgical masks, and other protective goods has taken a deadly toll. Congress could override him, and pay companies and workers whatever is required to make and distribute what’s needed. That in turn would mobilize the idle workforce, and reduce the fiscal impact of the unemployment program. We could create lucrative financial incentives to scientists working on treatments and cures, and give state and local governments the funding they need to maintain public services and keep public spaces safe and clean. Beyond this idle musing, public-health experts surely have other recommendations that would help us cycle out of crisis mode sooner.
The shortcomings of the CARES Act stem in large part from House Democrats’ inexplicable decision to surrender first-mover advantage to Senate Republicans. But the fact that the CARES Act is inadequate can become a source of leverage for Democrats, if they’re willing to treat it as one. Once congressional Republicans realize the crisis is much more serious than the response they provided, they will be moved to vote for “phase four”—not to advance national interests, but to advance Trump’s and their own. Democrats can and should use that incentive to insist upon a national vote-by-mail option, and accountability for the administration’s catastrophic early failures. These are critical facets of any coronavirus rescue, which Democrats might have secured in “phase three” if they’d used their power more effectively. But they will feel trivial in the larger scheme of things if the nation remains mired in health and economic crises with no end in sight. Democrats’ guiding principle should be that America’s democracy and people will weather these terrible months in tact; and they should step to the mics to lay out their conditions sooner rather than later.