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Trump's 'back-to-work' plan would only make things worse, experts say | US news


New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago – cities across the US are closing down because of the Covid-19 epidemic. The economic impact is already dire. Millions are already likely out of work, and economists are certain we are heading for recession.

Donald Trump has a solution: get back to work. But it is a solution that many think will make matters worse, leading to the loss of even more lives and a deeper economic crisis.

Trump stood by his suggestion on Tuesday, saying he wanted the US open for business by Easter, just 19 days away. “I think it’s possible. Why isn’t it? We’ve never controlled the country before and we’ve had some flus and some viruses. I think it’s absolutely possible,” Trump told Fox News. “We have to get our country back to work. Our country wants to go back to work.”

The administration is now reportedly considering easing some of the physical distancing directives issued by cities and states in order to halt the collapse of the economy.

Many experts think that’s a terrible idea.

The result would be “an open door to chaos”, said professor Michael Greenberger, a former counselor to the United States attorney general and now director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland.

“If it is just a question of whether we go down the public health track or we follow free enterprise, unmitigated by public health concerns, it would be folly to make things worse,” he said. “I think that calculus has to take into account that people are going to get sick and die.”

Greenberger said he could understand the desire to support the economy but that such short-term thinking could be devastating.

“There are no two ways about this. The shutdown of the economy is damaging. It is a balancing of risks. I think we will be in worse shape in the public health sector and the financial sector if we just unthinkingly send people back to business as usual.”

Even one of Trump’s closest supporters, the Republican senator Lindsey Graham, has distanced himself from the president’s position in a tweet, writing: “Try running an economy with major hospitals overflowing, doctors and nurses forced to stop treating some because they can’t help all, and every moment of gut-wrenching medical chaos being played out in our living rooms, on TV, on social media, and shown all around the world.

“There is no functioning economy unless we control the virus.”

But Trump is a president who has pinned his re-election on soaring stock markets and record lows in unemployment. Now with stock markets in freefall and jobs set to follow, he seems determined to press ahead and try to relax restrictions on business in an attempt to cure the economic crisis.

Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, said such a move would likely fail, economically and politically. “The first question is: what will people do?” she said.

Gould said some people were likely not to return to work even if ordered to do so. Secondly, she said, it was clear that state governors – who have shut down so many cities – would resist any move from Trump that could worsen the escalating health crisis.

Even in normal times, such a conflict would create a constitutional crisis. In the current situation it could be much worse.

Greenberger said: “In your worst imaginations, and our worst imaginations have come alive in this episode, you could see serious tension between the active military deployed to enforce the opening of businesses and the state national police who are enforcing the closures.”

Such chaos would only exacerbate the problems in the wider economy. Stock markets have fallen even as the Federal Reserve pumps billions into the economy, interest rates are cut and the government works on a bailout plan that could end up costing close to $2tn.

Until there is better news on the virus, all bets are off. And not just for Wall Street. Consumer spending, business investment, all the major drivers of the economy, are now in the grip of the pandemic.

Unlike the last recession, triggered by years of structural problems in financial markets, this is a crisis with a solution: stop the pandemic. “Economically, this is not complicated. It is all about the politics,” said Gould.

The government needs to spend enough money to keep people afloat, paying their bills, making their rent and feeding their families, until the health issue is addressed. “With the right policy responses we will get on the other side of this and we will be fine,” Gould said.

The experience of China and South Korea show there is “light at the end of the tunnel”, said Greenberger. “There is an end to this, a way to go back to business as usual – after having let the infection run its course.”

Nevertheless, the short-term temptation for Trump to try and push for a return to a normal may prove insurmountable. Not least because as the economic crisis deepens it is clear that his administration made fundamental errors that have exacerbated the situation.

Covid-19 can’t be blamed on Trump, but moves he made before the crisis and after have substantially worsened the situation – and with it the economy.

In the wake of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the Obama administration set up a directorate for global health security and biodefense to prepare for future pandemics like Covid-19. The Trump administration eliminated it – although there is a fierce political fight over whether or not the roles were reassigned.

No matter how you view it, Greenberger argues, the fact is that the US was woefully unprepared for a pandemic that security agencies had reportedly recently warned it about. Trump has disputed those claims, but there is no disputing that shortly after Covid-19 hit the US it became clear the country was woefully ill equipped to deal with it. Frontline health workers are begging for equipment.

“If we had had the testing, the masks, the PPE [personal protection equipment] in stockpile, we would have been able to cut this thing off eight weeks ago,” Greenberger said.

“If we had been better prepared for coronavirus, the economy wouldn’t be where it is right now,” he said.



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