Many people are worried that social distancing and state lockdowns will “kill the economy.” That’s the wrong analogy. Now that the massive $2 trillion stimulus bill is set to become law, there’s another analogy that fits better: inducing a coma.
Doctors frequently induce medical comas to give their patients’ brains time to heal from traumatic injuries. A doctor injects large amounts of sedatives into the person to induce the coma and then washes the drugs out of the person’s system as they get better.
That’s what is going on in the United States, and other countries, right now. The lockdowns and social distancing are artificially suppressing economic activity now because that’s the best way to stop the greater harm to society — the rapid spread of the coronavirus. As new infections subside and the risk of exponential, widespread contagion falls, the coma will be reversed by removing restrictions. Economic activity begins to come back to life, and the patient — us — will be healthier than would otherwise have been the case.
The massive stimulus is crucial to this effort. The aid to businesses and individuals is analogous to the drugs that a doctor administers during a coma to heal the wounded parts of the body. People who have lost their jobs will get checks and increased unemployment benefits. Employers will get loans to keep people on payroll, which in certain circumstances will turn into straight grants. The economic aspect of our social body is kept alive while the public health danger is averted.
This should work in theory. We know that lockdowns inhibit the spread of the virus, and we know subsidies and cash infusions can keep people and businesses paying their bills during the artificially induced shutdown. It’s not that things will be normal during the crisis, but the result four or five months from now will be much better than if we had let the virus spread to keep the economy humming, or if we had shut the economy down without a stimulus to support it during the downturn.
Other countries are trying something similar. Britain, for example, now has a mandatory national lockdown accompanied by a massive government stimulus program. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has said the government will do “whatever it takes” to keep the economy afloat via a massive infusion of cash. Germany also plans to inject hundreds of billions of euros into its economy to combat the coronavirus-induced slowdown.
We should know by June if this approach works. If it does, the number of covid-19 infections will have plummeted, deaths from the virus will have flatlined and people will be coming back to work in droves. It could be the biggest V-shaped economic recovery in U.S. history — the political-economy version of the resuscitation of a patient after an induced coma.
It’s too early to predict what the political fallout from a successful pirouette would be, but it’s hard to see how it doesn’t at least insulate President Trump from much criticism about the virus’ arrival to begin with. Democrats can say he should have done more, but the fact remains that no other Western leader did better to anticipate the onset of the coronavirus. Mr. Trump’s critics are not going to change their stripes, but the few people who remain open to persuasion are as likely to credit Mr. Trump as to blame him.
The very early polling data bears this out. Gallup’s most recent poll shows Trump’s overall job approval up to its high point, still a low 49% percent, but also reports 60% approval of how he has handled the coronavirus crisis. The Monmouth University poll released this week also has his job approval at an all-time high: 48% among registered voters, with 50% saying Mr. Trump has done a good job handling the outbreak. This could be simply the well-known “rally around the flag” response among voters during a crisis whereby the incumbent is initially trusted to see the country through. That effect often fades when the crisis subsides, but the coronavirus outbreak is also unlike most other crises presidents have faced in recent decades.
The coronavirus is pushing liberal democracies around the world to their limits. If the induced coma analogy is correct, however, it looks like most — including the United States — will pass the test.