As chairman of Utah’s Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission, two things have become evident. First, Utah must continue to fight COVID-19 with every means at our disposal, including social distancing and other protections, until we develop vaccines and/or reliable therapeutics. Second, Utah must immediately reopen its economy and return, as quickly and fully as possible, to business as usual. Both are true and doable.
Early on, governments at every level reacted out of fear, which resulted in a series of crisis-driven actions, like shutting down the NBA and our schools. Soon after, we shut down the United States economy. New terms like PPE, social distancing, antibody testing and community spread became common. Lockdowns were a tactic aimed at “flattening the curve.” Flattening the curve was never a strategy; it was a tactic intended keep our healthcare and hospital system from being overwhelmed — and it succeeded.
Long-term strategies were hard to come by, since governments were forced to react in the moment. A good example is the trillions in spending approved by Congress. Spending borrowed trillions may have been necessary, but it is not a sustainable strategy.
Shutting down Utah’s economy was understandable as an immediate reaction, but we are now losing $28 million per day in gross domestic product. Continued lockdown, while successful at preserving our healthcare system, is not a sustainable strategy.
It is time to stop reacting and start responding – to abandon emergency tactics in favor of sustainable strategies for coping long term with both COVID-19 and a dangerously crippled economy. Von Clauswitz said, “Tactics is the art of using troops in battle; strategy is the art of using battles to win the war.” That is the pivot we must make.
Utah has seen its share of tragedy and fared better than all but a handful of states. Our population is far less concentrated, mass transit use is far less universal, average age is lower, health habits better, and many other factors come to play. For example, Utah’s medical standard of care produces far lower mortality than most places.
Utah has done reasonably well with our most vulnerable citizens, especially the elderly, though every loss of life is tragic. We can and must do more as we reengage our state’s economy, doing everything we can to save and support local businesses and manufacturers. Our medical and dental offices must reopen to prevent greater tragedy even beyond COVID-19. We will all need to practice what we have learned about protecting ourselves and loved ones — this is not an immediate return to “normal.” Reliable cures and vaccines will come in time, in all likelihood from our robust American private sector.
Any suggestions that lockdowns have outlived their usefulness are greeted by an outraged mob of newly minted armchair virologists, who maintain that staying closed down indefinitely will somehow eliminate further illness and death. That is delusional. If living without COVID-19 is not a current option, we must learn to live with it.
As a state and nation, we know the road ahead is long, difficult and will require change. Our longer-term national strategy over the next decade needs to include securing our supply lines and “re-shoring” manufacturing and production of key inputs and products, especially medical-related. This crisis has shown the folly of relying upon foreign governments and enterprises for critical goods, especially medicines and medical equipment. We can accomplish this strategy in an orderly fashion, using incentives rather than government mandates.
While we still don’t know everything, we know far more than we did on March 12. Knowledge in hand, it is time to undertake a forward-looking strategy to contain the virus as best we can while protecting our most vulnerable, and to bring our economy and our society back on line, in stages, to get our people working and producing once again. The two have equal urgency and we must succeed at both.