- - Monday, April 19, 2021

Once COVID-19 has passed, America must immediately examine our war against it.

The cost in deaths and dollars demands that we learn from our successes and not repeat our mistakes. While we can hope a pandemic never recurs, we must recognize that the verdict on our responses will be the precedent should it do so. After all, generals go into their next battle prepared to fight the last war. 

COVID’s costs have been staggering. As of April 15, America has had more than 32 million cases, almost one-tenth of the population, and 578,000 deaths. In less than a year fighting the virus, the federal government spent $5.5 trillion, increasing the federal debt by 32%. In comparison, during America’s direct involvement in Vietnam from 1964 through 1972, the federal debt increased just 25%. 

To these known costs must be added the unknown. These include the health problems — physical and mental — that were caused, exacerbated and too often untreated.  hey also include economic losses, lost opportunities and lost schooling. And they must also include lost freedom; essentially over a year of people’s lives has been transformed to an extent unimaginable outside of conscription. 

America’s virtual war footing with COVID-19 is well into its second year. Despite success, every action comes with a cost; this has certainly been true of our COVID response. It is therefore incumbent that we quickly evaluate the response’s efficiency relative to the high cost we know exists.



This is important because our COVID response will become the precedent for any future broad health response. It is critical that any future response be the right one. Simply allowing our broad swath of policy responses to go into history as being inevitable and unimprovable — and for which there were no clear alternatives — is more than wrong. It is dangerous. 

That our COVID experiences are already laying the groundwork for precedent is clear. There is no other modern American pandemic experience.  There are already numerous legislative proposals emanating from the administration and Congress that seek to rectify perceived shortfalls in our pre-pandemic preparation and build on perceived successes. Finally, the renewal of lockdown restrictions as later case surges occurred underlines their transformation into precedential status. The forging of precedents from the pandemic is well underway.

Of all government policies, lockdowns undoubtedly had the most direct effect on people’s lives and the economy. They also inflicted an extremely high cost. University of Southern California researchers writing in a December 2020 study stated: “We project that the net U.S. GDP losses from COVID-19 would range from $3.2 trillion to $4.8 trillion in a 2-year period for [our] three scenarios. The major factor affecting the results in all three scenarios is the combination of Mandatory Closures and Partial Reopenings of businesses. These alone would have resulted in a 22.3% to 60.6% decreases in U.S. GDP across the scenarios.” Of the $5.5 trillion in federal spending aimed at COVID relief, a large portion of this was done to offset lockdowns’ economic costs.

We also know that many actions taken as aggressive COVID-19 responses were at worst wrong and frequently poorly targeted and timed. Considering lockdowns’ unprecedented nature, their duration, stringency and targeting must be evaluated. Did they work as planned? How could they have worked better? Answering these questions would only make our responses more effective and give the public greater future confidence in them. 

Nor is future government action the only reason for examination, fair appraisal of lockdowns will also facilitate public behavior as America seeks to reopen. Lockdowns continue to influence behavior, even when no longer directly impacting it. Clearly, lockdowns influenced the public to avoid activities, not the other way around — or there would have been no need for lockdowns. Without debunking lockdowns’ bad practices, many people will continue to adhere to them, further slowing economic recovery. 

Despite compelling reasons for re-examination, there will be resistance to doing so. There is always resistance to cost/benefit analysis from those resistant to economic costs influencing public policy. Additionally, there is a clear ideological divide on lockdowns: Blue jurisdictions implemented lockdowns earlier, more severely and longer than red ones did. These partisans likely will interpret any examination as an attempt to indict their actions retroactively.

Of course, no issue in America currently seems to be nonpartisan. Yet the size of the scale of the pandemic’s costs and its accompanying actions’ costs, particularly lockdowns’, and the likelihood for repetition are precisely why it must be done.

No other government undertaking of this scope and impact would not be re-examined. The fact that it could be repeated only underscores the necessity. It is precisely because generals are prepared to fight the last war that America must do all it can to guarantee that our COVID victory was not a Pyrrhic one.

• J.T. Young served in the Office of Management and Budget and at the Treasury Department. 

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