For weeks, as the novel coronavirus has spread across the globe and infected hundreds of thousands of people, there have been the skeptics — those who say “social distancing,” while proven to slow the spread of COVID-19 and save lives, isn’t worth the economic cost.
President Donald Trump has leaned into that view lately, becoming its most high-profile proponent. “We’re not going to let the cure be worse than the problem,” he said at a press briefing Monday. Later, referring to social distancing, he added that there would be “probably more death from that than anything we’re talking about with respect to the virus.”
But pundits and politicians prioritizing the tanking market over pandemic response is a weeks-old custom by now.
The notion was perhaps first articulated for a mass audience in the United States by Rick Santelli, the CNBC pundit who also infamously declared the start of a new “Tea Party” on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in 2009.
“Maybe we’d be just better off if we gave it to everybody and then in a month it would be over,” Santelli said on-air on March 6. “Because the mortality rate of this probably isn’t going to be any different if we did it that way than the long-term picture, but the difference is we’re wreaking havoc on global and domestic economies.”
In reality, there’s a huge difference: If cases spike all at once, hospitals will be completely overwhelmed, leading to mass death that could otherwise be avoided if cases spread slowly, allowing hospitals to keep up with the disease.
As the tolls of social distancing on domestic and global markets have grown over time, the calls for abandoning the strategy have become more bracing.
On Sunday night, Fox News host Steve Hilton said it was easy for the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci to encourage “overreacting” to COVID-19 — because “he’ll still have a job at the end of this, whatever happens.”
“Our ruling class and their TV mouthpieces whipping up fear over this virus, they can afford an indefinite shutdown,” Hilton, a former advisor to British Prime Minister David Cameron, said. “Working Americans can’t, they’ll be crushed by it. You know that famous phrase, ‘The cure is worse than the disease’? That is exactly the territory we are hurtling towards.”
Hilton compared the COVID-19 response, bafflingly, to British austerity measures, which one study found were to blame for 130,000 otherwise-avoidable deaths between 2012 and 2017. “The years of austerity for America to pay the costs for this shutdown will be worse,” he said.
Around the same time, former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein tweeted that “extreme measures” to slow the virus’ spread were sensible — “for a time.”
“But crushing the economy, jobs and morale is also a health issue-and beyond,” he added. “Within a very few weeks let those with a lower risk to the disease return to work.”
In perhaps the harshest rendition of this argument, one that’s since been erased from the internet, the California attorney Scott A. McMillan tweeted about the “fundamental problem” of social distancing for the sake of the sick and vulnerable.
“The fundamental problem is whether we are going to tank the entire economy to save 2.5% of the population which is (1) generally expensive to maintain, and (2) not productive,” he wrote, soliciting a barrage of criticism for effectively waiving away the deaths of eight million people.
“Reality check,” Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA) tweeted the next morning. “- Booming economy, gone -Businesses closing -Unemployment soaring -Hysteria & fear rule.”
“Which is worse, the illness or our ‘fix’? Americans stand up to challenges,” he added. “Don’t succumb to fear! Trust in God. Protect yourself and others, and move forward!”
“We can’t shut in the economy, the economic costs to individuals is just too great,” he said on CNBC, adding: “The President is right, the cure can’t be worse than the disease, and we’re going to have to make some difficult trade-offs.”
In an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Monday night, the 69-year-old Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick played martyr, saying “I don’t want the whole country to be sacrificed” for the sake of slowing the disease’s spread.
“Those of us who are 70+, we’ll take care of ourselves but don’t sacrifice the country,” he added. “Don’t do that. Don’t ruin this great American Dream.”
“There’s something that would be worse than dying?” Carlson pressed. The lieutenant governor hemmed and hawed, but eventually made his point clear: “I intend to be around a long time on your show, but it’s worth whatever it takes to save the country.”
And on Tuesday, Stuart Varney, the Fox Business Network host, made the point by animating “the market” into a living being — one whose thriving ought to be weighed against potentially thousands of its fellow citizens.
“Concentrate your restrictions on the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions who are most at risk,” he proposed. “That will be an easing of restrictions, but an imposition of more restrictions on that risk group.”
“That’s a potential compromise here,” Varney said. “And that’s what the market likes.”