The Only Way To Save The Economy Is To Stop The Pandemic, Disease Expert Laurie Garrett Says

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A man wearing a face mask sits near an American flag on a pier at Coney Island amid the coronavirus pandemic on May 24, 2020 in New York. (Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images)
A man wearing a face mask sits near an American flag on a pier at Coney Island amid the coronavirus pandemic on May 24, 2020 in New York. (Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images)

A new model by the University of Washington predicts 200,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. by Oct. 1.

This comes as more than 2.1 million Americans have been infected by the coronavirus and the death toll breaches 116,000. At least 22 states are reporting a rise in cases as they continue to reopen their economies. In Arizona, infections shot up 54% in one week.

There are some glimmers of good news, too. Some of the hardest-hit states — including New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts — are watching their case numbers drop.

Pandemic expert Laurie Garrett is critical of the "fragmented mosaic" of pandemic responses around the country. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author says it’s too early for politicians and other experts to be talking about a second wave of the virus.

“What you're seeing now are the fluctuations of a first wave,” she says. “What we're seeing is a very fragmented mosaic of public health and health governance, varying county by county, state by state, and no real serious national leadership forming any kind of coherent, singular response.”

“We either stop this epidemic or we have economic collapse.”

Laurie Garrett

Researchers who specialize in forecasting epidemics are divided over how the pandemic will play out, Garrett says. She predicts that there will be a series of surges about 10 days or two weeks after reopening events, such as the partying that occurred over Memorial Day weekend.

“This will go on up to September, and we will hit 200,000 dead Americans sometime around Labor Day, maybe even sooner,” she says. “And then we will be hit by another really big wave after we get into colder weather again.”

The impact all of this will have on the global economy is uncertain. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, U.S. GDP could decline to -8.5% if there is a second wave.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said the U.S. cannot shut down the economy again, regardless of how many lives lost. But Garrett says the only way to save the economy is to stop the pandemic.

“The kinds of severe economic shocks we're going to experience are far beyond the Band-Aid prescriptions, the trillion here, the trillion there, of liquidity infused into the market,” she says. “We either stop this epidemic or we have economic collapse.”

As scientists around the country race to develop a vaccine that could stop the pandemic, Garrett is concerned that “safety may take a backseat.” Rolling out a coronavirus vaccine too quickly could not only harm many people, but it could also give fuel to anti-vaccine movements, she says. A poll by the Pew Research Center already found that 27% of Americans would refuse a COVID-vaccine.

“If there's anything wrong with a product and it goes out too quickly, and it's not adequately tested for longer-term effects,” she says, “... then I think we're going to be Sisyphus rolling a rock straight up a 90-degree angle, trying to get herd immunity.”

While we wait for a safe and effective vaccine, Garrett stresses that Americans need to keep taking coronavirus precautions seriously to stop the spread. Part of the problem is this pandemic has been heavily driven by outbreaks in nursing homes, she says.

“Most of America doesn't think about people in nursing homes,” she says. “They're warehoused old people. We've already written them off.”

Garrett urges anyone who has this attitude to do “some serious reality checking,” just like the soul searching many have undergone in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the protests against police brutality that followed.

“It's time that we stop having such a callous attitude. You might not see it. They're not rolled out on the sidewalk for your public viewing, and maybe you don't care about people over 80 years old,” she says. “Maybe you think anybody that's lived to be 70 has had an adequate life. I don't happen to agree. I find it deeply offensive.”

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on June 16, 2020.


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Samantha Raphelson is an associate producer for Here & Now, based at NPR in Washington, D.C.



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