By Kyle Wingfield
You probably have seen them pitted against one another often during the past couple of months: public health vs. the economy.
There’s a great deal at stake. As elected officials begin loosening the restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19, everyone else must decide how to navigate a riskier world.
It should be possible to protect public health in a way that’s not economically destructive. But there has been a troubling undertone to the debate: that while public health is directly tied to people, economic concerns are not. The most overt is the silly slogan #ProfitsOverPeople that some people are using to argue for keeping commerce closed.
Other arguments, while subtler, further a narrative that “the economy” is somehow less of a human concern than “public health.” But “the economy” – like “the market” – is just one way we describe how people interact.
After all, “the economy” is the loan officer at the bank who reviews an applicant’s business plan (and the value of the home she put up as collateral) and then calls with the good news that she’s getting the loan.
“The economy” is the real-estate broker who shows the loan recipient 13 different properties for lease, until she finds just the right one.
“The economy” is the contractor she hires to convert the space from a clothing-store setup into a pizzeria.
“The economy” is the wholesaler who sells her the tables and chairs where her customers will sit – and the other wholesaler who sells her the plates and flatware and glasses they’ll use.
“The economy” is every delivery man who brings supplies.
“The economy” is the wheat farmer whose grain goes to the miller, who turns it into flour for the dough she spins into crusts – and the tomato farmer whose produce becomes the marinara sauce that led her friends to say, “You should open a restaurant!” And, it’s the dairy farmer who produces the mozzarella she sprinkles on top of each pie – and the hog farmer whose sausage sizzles as the pie is brought to a hungry family.
“The economy” is the plumber who fixes the leak that springs (of course) the night before she’s set to open to the public.
“The economy” is the waitress who stores up her tips to pay for community college.
“The economy” is the family that runs the child-care center where her kids spend the day, so she can serve the lunch crowd and make sure everything is prepared for the dinner crowd.
And “the economy” is the loan officer at the bank who, a few years later, reviews her cash flow and her business plan for a second restaurant on the other side of town – where her broker has found just the right spot, once it’s been renovated …
There are profits throughout that (partial) list of transactions in “the economy.” But there are even more people: people who buy food, pay their rent or mortgages, shop at clothing boutiques, lease cars, go on vacations, and more. You know, “the economy.”
And if the pizzeria owner put in for that loan on, say, March 1, a lot of people are waiting anxiously for the chance to help her open that second restaurant – if she has hung on this long. Each week that goes by, she owes rent and utilities and loan payments, wonders if her employees will come back, watches her savings idle and dwindle. If it all dwindles away, there’s no guarantee she can start all over again.
Many people in her position won’t – hurting not only them, the business owners, but all the others they touch in “the economy.”
By all means, let’s guard against spreading the virus. Let’s be smart, considerate, prudent, self-restrained.
But keeping everything shuttered too long will mean people skip meals, lose homes, go without medications, sink into depression, and worse.
The profits, in many cases, are long gone.
If we can’t restart “the economy,” people will be next.
(Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation: www.georgiapolicy.org.)