Column: Tell us, Mr. President, just how many coronavirus deaths are worth it to save the economy?

President Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House.

“We can do two things at one time,” mused President Trump during Monday’s endless campaign rally-cum-media-briefing in the White House press room.

Our flagging economy can be restarted, he suggested, even as Americans continue to practice the rigorous social distancing that public health experts say is required to save lives and keep already overwhelmed hospitals from becoming paralyzed.

By Tuesday morning, the concept had jelled like the lacquered strands of hair above his ears.


“Our people want to return to work,” Trump tweeted. “They will practice Social Distancing and all else, and Seniors will be watched over protectively & lovingly. We can do two things together. THE CURE CANNOT BE WORSE (by far) THAN THE PROBLEM! Congress MUST ACT NOW. We will come back strong!”

Yeah, sure. Seniors will be watched over lovingly and protectively as they become ill and are taken to hospitals where there aren’t enough ventilators to keep them alive.

As the New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg pointed out Monday, the dark warnings about death panels cooked up by Sarah Palin’s fevered speechwriters never materialized after Obamacare was enacted. But here we are, all these years later, looking at rationed healthcare not because we have universal health insurance, but because the country was ill-prepared for a pandemic that experts have been warning about for years. When the president says “no one” could have imagined such a scenario, he is only referring to his own pinched awareness.

It is truly awful to see businesses shut down, workers idled and to know that the losses, for many, will be insurmountable.

But are we really willing to potentially sacrifice hundreds of thousands of lives to get back to business as usual?


Monday night, in a clip that immediately went viral, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told Tucker Carlson of Fox News that he would happily sacrifice himself for the sake of his six grandchildren.


“No one reached out to me and said, as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance for your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?” Patrick told Carlson. “And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.”

This is not just stupid. It’s dangerous.

To suggest that older Americans are expendable is appalling enough. But it’s not just old people who are in jeopardy.

And to blithely speak of being willing to get sick and die for the sake of the children assumes that grandparents will wander into the woods, dig a hole and quietly expire beneath a blanket of leaves. Grandparents, in fact, will be taken to hospitals, where they will run up millions of dollars in medical bills, endanger already besieged health workers, prolong the contagion and do nothing that will ultimately help their children and grandchildren, except perhaps pass on their newly shrunken nest eggs.

I’ve been reading health and economics blogs, where people who know a hell of a lot more than most of us are having sincere debates about whether the severe measures that have been enacted by American governors and mayors will do more harm (to the economy) than good (to the public health) over the long term. These are important debates, and I only wish I had confidence the president was following them as well.

On his Grumpy Economist blog, Hoover Institution Senior Fellow John Cochrane argued that a total shutdown “for a few weeks” may be the “sledgehammer” against the virus that we need right now.

“But it cannot last,” he wrote. “Businesses will close, people will lose jobs, the economy will not be there to start up again. Needed fast: a plan to open up the economy again in a virus-safe way.” (The looming question: Does such a virus-safe way exist?)

A counterpoint was struck in the blog’s comments by Rafael Guthmann, an economics professor at the Pontifical Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro.


“Simulations show that the death toll from the virus could be reduced from 2.2 million to 1.1 million with social distancing,” wrote Guthmann. “Saving 1.1 million lives has an actuarial worth about 10 trillion dollars, so closing the country up for a few months sounds completely worth it.”


It was only a matter of time before Trump grew frustrated with the restrictions deemed necessary by public health experts like Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health.

How many times has that poor doctor had to step in and clean up Trump’s careless errors? No, a vaccine is not around the corner. No, a combination of antimalarial drugs and antibiotics is not a silver bullet. No, this thing is not going to be gone by April.

It was easy to see that our self-styled “wartime president” would be able to stand the heat of battle for only so long.

After minimizing the danger of the new coronavirus, then seeming to accept it by supporting social distancing measures, Trump has watched as his best reelection argument — a rip-roaring economy and low unemployment rate — go down the tubes.

Finally, Trump is in a panic over the pandemic. But it’s not the panic most of us are experiencing. He’s panicked about losing in November. On Tuesday, he said he wants the country to be open for business “by Easter.” Scientists disagree.


If a bunch of Americans have to get sick or die to boost his reelection chances, so be it.