[W]e’re living through a tragedy in the strict sense of the term: terrible things are happening, and there’s no way to avoid them. Some, especially on the right, have spent the better part of the past few weeks acting as if we’ve made a stupid decision in the face of an easy trade off. We could have chosen to keep the economy humming long like normal, let people get sick and die, and then at least we wouldn’t be confronting a global depression. Then we’d have just one terrible problem instead of two.
But this is foolishness — a product of people’s incapacity to grasp the gravity of what now confronts us. The option was not a pandemic and a self-inflicted economic calamity or a slightly worse pandemic and a healthy economy. The option instead was an economic calamity caused by an intentional sudden stop designed to minimize as much as possible the death toll from a pandemic or a pandemic with millions more dead and the calamity of an economic stop unfolding over a somewhat longer timetable — over weeks and months instead of days.
We need to be clear about what such an alternative scenario would have looked like. This would have been a world in which vastly more people kept going to work and on vacation and to schools and restaurants and stores while they were getting sick and contagious, spreading the virus far more widely. At a certain point, panic would have ensued, as people began displaying symptoms in public places and headlines conveyed word of overwhelmed hospitals rationing care in communities across the country, with friends, family, and other loved ones, not to mention public officials, plus beloved actors, musicians, and other celebrities, succumbing in huge numbers.