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Health vs. the economy — the politics of COVID-19

Gov. Gary Herbert talks about “The Utah Leads Together Plan” in response to the COVID-19 crisis during a virtual press conference on Tuesday, March 24, 2020.
Gov. Gary Herbert talks about “The Utah Leads Together Plan” in response to the COVID-19 crisis during a virtual press conference on Tuesday, March 24, 2020.
Zoom.com

Politics never shelters in place ... even in a pandemic. The wrangling in Congress over the relief package, sparring between the president and opponents, and disagreements over prioritizing health or the economy demonstrate this reality.

Utah politicians are also maneuvering and seeking advantage, although in rather subdued ways compared to the nastiness elsewhere. We inoculate our readers against political confusion.

Last week, Gov. Gary Herbert announced a three-phase economic response plan: Urgent Phase, Stabilization Phase and Recovery Phase, lasting about 8-10 weeks each. Some Utahns are demanding a mandatory shutdown of the state (shelter at home) while others suggest more targeted restrictions to maintain economic activity. Does the Herbert task force plan satisfy both sides?

Pignanelli: “Public health looks to separate people. Our economy is built on integrating people. Both principles have to be implemented in a coordinated fashion.” — Rahm Emanuel, former mayor of Chicago

The last severe pandemic was more than 100 years ago. Thus, advances in technology, transportation and culture necessitates the proverbial wheel be reinvented for a response. Among educated professionals, there is a tug of war of whether the government should mandate all but essential personnel remain at home versus more strategic — less strident — actions.

A whispered analysis is being conducted outside polite conversation. With limited testing COVID-19 has 1.43% fatality rate in the U.S. (Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine). Does this statistic warrant a shutdown of the economy with Depression era results?

Because of the crushing impact upon health care facilities, many are claiming strong lockdown measures are needed. But an increasing number of recognized experts in the country are articulating legitimate concerns such a “cure” is more devastating than the disease, urging alternative targeted policies. A recent editorial penned by state Sen. Dan Hemmert, state Rep. Mike Shultz, state Auditor John Dougall and former GOP Chairman Thomas Wright offers a thoughtful, compelling process — focused on testing and procuring adequate medical resources through the private sector.

The Herbert administration deserves immense credit for leadership in providing a course of action that protects the economy, with sensitivity to public health. Implementation (aka inventing this wheel) will be difficult, but imperative.

Webb: Politicians can’t keep everyone happy, but the state response has been good. We need a lot more data to say whether we’ve overreacted to the pandemic or haven’t been strict enough. Until we have the data, we must err on the side of caution.

Everyone wants to stay healthy. But everyone also wants to have jobs to support their families. The politicians, relying on the data and the best medical science, must find the right balance.

We need millions of tests, including random sample testing, to know how many people have been infected, the hospitalization rate, and the actual death rate. The problem is, we have to make decisions without all the data. Protecting life right now is more important than work. Jobs will eventually return. Dead people won’t.

But it is a balance. We already tolerate many deaths, injuries and disease because the economic cost is too high to eliminate all of it. We actually could eliminate almost all deaths and injury from auto accidents, and deaths from the common flu — if we were draconian enough and willing to destroy the economy.

But we don’t want to live in a prescriptive, dictatorial society with little freedom or economic opportunity. We will eventually know the real rates of infection, hospitalization and death from COVID-19. And we’ll have immunizations and treatments. Then society will adjust appropriately.

Will the state response to the pandemic, and those of other elected officials, be used as campaign issues in the upcoming primary and general elections?

Pignanelli: Utahns are filled with common sense and compassion but will hold officials accountable for perceived carelessness. Candidates seeking to replace Herbert will soon need to promote their detailed position on this subject. By the fall, other candidates will face similar standards. Unfortunately, no one knows the ultimate result that will be the touchstone for judgment.

Webb: The crisis is currently a political benefit for incumbents and well-known candidates, simply because traditional campaigning has been upended, citizens aren’t paying much attention to politics, and candidates have had to reinvent their campaigns and messaging on the fly. That provides an advantage to candidates who are already well-known.

At the federal level, President Donald Trump’s reelection will be largely determined by the success or failure of his coronavirus response. He has been harshly criticized for suggesting that at least part of the country could be reopened, with proper precautions, by Easter. But perhaps he will be right.

Gov. Herbert has issued an executive order allowing candidates seeking placement on the primary election ballot to gather signatures without personal contact. Was this needed?

Pignanelli: The first phase of the Herbert coronavirus plan includes “extensive social distancing.” It is impossible to conduct a productive conversation with a prospective signatory more than 6 feet away. An emergency situation compels creative solutions to protect this element of democracy.

Webb: This election is like no other. Temporary emergency measures to facilitate ballot access and citizen involvement are entirely appropriate.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Email: frankp@xmission.com.