How does this all end, you (and everyone else) ask? Well, the miserable realists answer back, it doesn’t—not until there’s a vaccine, at least.
Given the skyrocketing unemployment rate and the prospect of GDP contraction of between 20 and 30 percent, “for the foreseeable future” is palatable only to those who concern themselves exclusively with public health. If you’re in the business of ensuring there is a society left to reactivate after this initial lockdown has passed, getting people safely back to work is both a priority and a conundrum. How do you reignite the nation’s economic engine without jeopardizing the public and, ultimately, damaging the economy further? The answer to this riddle has some Western political leaders contemplating a fraught stopgap measure: immunity registries.
The advent of approved serological tests that can determine whether someone contracted this unique Coronavirus and developed the antibodies that presumably render them immune to future infection has opened this avenue up to policymakers. Apparently, they’re taking it.
The German government plans to introduce “immunity certificates” to COVID-19 survivors that would allow license holders to reenter society. The U.K., too, will reportedly provide residents who test positive for Coronavirus antibodies with “immunity passports,” liberating recipients from lockdown. For some American policymakers, these seem like worthy models to follow. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, for example, has repeatedly entertained slowly reopening society to “people who can get antibody tests.”
In theory, this would seem to be the best of all the terrible options before policymakers. And for a nation with a history of codified social stratification, it might work. Germany’s experience is amenable to imposing these temporary stations on individuals. Class is an unseen but ubiquitous force in Britain, too. But the United States does not have a similar experience with social castes. Its class structure is permeable; indeed, the country’s national identity is predicated on transcending the categories into which we are consigned by conditions beyond our control. And this new class—the immune—is permeable. But public health officials aren’t going to like how the public goes about penetrating this stratum.
It seems intuitive that establishing infection as the criterion to reengage in economic activity would create some rather perverse incentives for individuals to become infected. That may be unthinkable for those fortunate enough to be able to weather this economic storm from behind a monitor in their home office, but that option just isn’t available to millions. Americans who only just managed to make ends meet before this crisis are going to struggle even if they are recipients of federal relief that preserves a large percentage of their incomes. Poorer and working-class Americans are already the hardest hit by an economic shock that has disproportionately hit the service sector. They are desperate to rejoin the workforce. The prospect of a long-term struggle against this virus with rolling lockdowns that stretch into the autumn and even to 2021 will only make the possibility of an economic hall pass more enticing.
If the public health consensus is (as it seems to be) that this virus will be a part of lives for the next 18 months or more, expect human psychology to adapt to those circumstances. Only the most obtuse among us could expect people to languish in suboptimal or downright suicidal conditions in perpetuity. The longer this virus is with us, the less its hold over us will prove paralyzing. The cost/benefit analysis will change, and risk-aversion will fade. For the sake of the family, the marriage, the job, the children, the psyche, people will begin to seek out the status that allows them to live fully once again—as dangerous as that may be. Already, the alluring salve of herd immunity has led the reckless to take matters into their own hands.
This isn’t ideal, but it is human nature; the comprehension of which is not something we expect of unelected health officials and bureaucrats. But that is something we demand of democratically elected officials. If the public policy objective today is to ease the strain on hospitals by staggering infection rates for as long as possible, creating economic rewards for those who survive the infection could prove disastrously counterproductive. If the alternative is to keep the economy in a state of suspended animation for the better part of a year and a half, however, it’s not clear that there is much of an alternative at all.