Commentary

COVID-19 and the Word 'All'

Both health and economic conditions make clear that we need to move to the next phase

In the Mackinac Center’s research and education programs, we consider all people, all institutions, all disciplines and all times. I emphasize the word all because it is a word that too many of our elected leaders are presently failing to consider, and candidly, too many of our neighbors have yet to fully absorb.

Two months ago, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, with support from Michigan’s legislative leadership, issued a series of executive orders directing that Michiganders stay at home unless they attend to critical needs, and that many categories of businesses close their doors until further notice.

The apparent rationale was to “flatten the curve” on the COVID-19 pandemic. By postponing most exposures to this novel coronavirus, we would buy time for our health care sector to increase testing and hospital capacity, secure supplies of personal protective equipment, learn more about the virus and develop better treatment protocols.

The last two months have been brutal for Southeast Michigan, but it has finally turned the corner on getting the virus under control, and the Detroit hot zone is cooling rapidly. Field hospitals that were constructed hastily to deal with a worst-case scenario were barely used, if at all. Much of the state has been spared the dire effects of community spread. And perhaps most importantly, we have learned of at least two promising medications for combatting the virus while researchers make historically rapid progress toward multiple vaccines.

In spite of these successes and promising developments, Gov. Whitmer and her advisors are now moving the goalposts. She said in a Tuesday radio interview, “A vaccine really is critical for us to think about gatherings that have lots of people in them. Until then, we've got to limit the number of people who congregate and make sure that we have masks as we re-engage parts of our economy. We're going to be doing it in increments so that we can measure along the way and make sure that we don't see an outcropping of COVID-19 along the way.”

Our governor has become the executive who is fixated on one line item on one side of the ledger and ignores the rest of the balance sheet. The 4,179 Michiganders we have lost to COVID are tragic losses, and their loved ones deserve our compassion. But this pandemic has also inflicted damage on millions of Michiganders who have suffered significant losses because of another problem that she and too many of their state leaders have ignored or dismissed.

This “throttle back society until there’s a vaccine” mentality shows no compassion for the hourly worker or sole proprietor whose place of employment was shut down and who has been waiting almost two months for an unemployment claim to be processed correctly.

It shows no compassion for the small business owner whose life’s work is being wiped out by arbitrary rules that tilt the playing field ever more sharply in favor of big-box and out-of-state competitors.

It shows no compassion for the elementary school students who are missing months of classroom instruction at a critical stage of their intellectual development. Or for the students who, next fall, may end up competing for their teacher’s attention in larger classes or unstable learning conditions because of a collapse in state revenue sources.

It shows no compassion for the accident, stroke, or heart attack victim whose local, rural hospital closed because it was not allowed to perform elective surgeries once the COVID surge had passed. How many of these patients will be permanently disabled or die during the half-hour ride to the next nearest emergency center?

It shows no compassion for the family members who continue to be barred from important life events – high school and college graduations, weddings, births of children, or even funerals of their loved ones.

It shows no compassion for our neighbors who have reached their emotional or financial breaking points. Or for the first responders who are being sent out far more frequently to talk them away from domestic violence, self-harm or suicide.

It seemed sensible – for a short window of time – to prioritize the safety of the general public against COVID-19 above most other considerations. Michigan needed to protect its hospital resources from being overwhelmed during the first wave of the virus, and we did that. And over the last couple of months, we have learned valuable lessons about the virus and made great progress toward treatment protocols, medications and vaccines to reduce its severity and lethality.

But even then, we knew the consequences of pulling the emergency brake on society would be severe, and we are now realizing them.

Roughly one-fourth of Michigan’s labor force has filed for unemployment during the last two months. Yet there continue to be Michiganders who have lost their jobs and are unable to apply or to get their claims approved. More of our neighbors are out of work today than at any time since the 1930s, and no one is certain when they will be able to return to work.

Next Friday, the state of Michigan will conduct its quarterly Consensus Revenue Estimating Conference, which provides an update and a forecast on both the Michigan economy and state government revenues. The buzz around Lansing is that the conference will report a current-year deficit of at least $2.5 billion (more than 7% of total state revenues) and an even larger shortfall for Fiscal Year 2021. K-12 and higher education, health and human services, public safety, road repairs and environmental protection all face meaningful reductions over the next 18 months.

The longer the state forces broad swaths of our society to remain inactive, those employment and fiscal holes grow far deeper and take longer to climb out.

We have reached a time when both health and economic conditions make clear that we need to move to the next phase of our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sadly, Gov. Whitmer and her advisors continue to charge down their original path – this time, on their own. And now we all suffer.