Shortly after the 9 / 11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush and other officials told Americans to go back to life as usual. The message was work, shop and keep the economy going. By doing that, we were preventing the terrorists from winning.

The COVID-19 outbreak is not a terrorist attack. The virus will not be impressed or cowed by our bravado if we behave normally. Instead, it will spread more rapidly and push beyond its capacity a medical infrastructure that in some places in the U.S. is already at the breaking point.

That is why the message this week from President Donald Trump and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey is so troubling. Both want the economy to keep going as best it can, and President Trump is not wrong when he speaks about trade-offs, such as an increase in mental health problems and suicides the longer our national semi-quarantine goes on.

But admitting there are trade-offs doesn’t mean the president and those following his lead have hit on the correct ratio.

“My priority is to keep the Alabama economy going as much as possible while we take extraordinary measures to keep everyone healthy and safe,” Gov. Ivey said Tuesday during a conference call.

This is the opposite approach taken by governors whose states were among the first hit by the new coronavirus.

“I understand what the president is saying, this is unsustainable that we close down the economy and we continue to spend money. There is no doubt about that, no one is going to argue about that,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this week, as reported by Business Insider. “But if you ask the American people to choose between public health and the economy, then it’s no contest. No American is going to say, ‘accelerate the economy at the cost of human life.’ Because no American is going to say how much a life is worth.”

Then Cuomo added, “Job one has to be save lives. That has to be the priority.”

As far as this debate goes, Cuomo seems to have a better view of the trade-offs we’re going to have to make, yet both sides seem to take as a given that there is a difference between the people and the economy. There is not.

The economy is not something sitting off on its own. It’s not really a thing at all; it’s a process. It is what we call the activity of people buying and selling, consuming and producing. Without people, there is no economy.

That’s why trying to return to normal prematurely — as early as Easter, if the president were to get his way — will only backfire, not only in terms of public health and human lives but in terms of dollars and cents. A sudden increase in COVID-19 infections will not only strain hospitals and lead to deaths, especially if it happens before the supply of masks and ventilators can catch up to the demand, it will cause panic. People won’t shop or work because they’ll worry about their own health and that of their loves ones.

A return to normality too soon will only prolong the economic pain while costing even more lives. It’s not a trade-off. It’s a lose-lose proposition.

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