Policy Lessons from Our Covid Experience

Gail Wilensky:

As of August 24, 2020, nearly 5.7 million cases of Covid-19 had been reported in the United States, with more than 176,000 deaths. Although there is debate about the accuracy of these specific numbers — many people with mild symptoms are never tested for Covid, for example, and especially early in the epidemic, the difference between dying from Covid and dying with Covid may not have been accurately captured — the increase in excess mortality rates reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is consistent with a significant loss of life associated with the disease.

At the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to staggering economic losses in the United States. Closing down the economy has had a devastating impact on the American people, even though the closure was imposed to save lives. The longest economic expansion on record abruptly ended in February, and the country officially entered a recession late that month.

The U.S. unemployment rate in February was 3.5% — a half-century low. By March, it was 4.4%, and by April, 14.7%, with 20.5 million people losing their jobs and more than 20% of the labor force filing for unemployment benefits. Experts predicted that the unemployment rate would approach 20% in May; instead, it was reported as 13.3%, although there’s debate about whether this figure reflected some workers’ self-classification as only temporarily laid off. The June unemployment rate was even lower — 11.1% — but the economy was still operating with 15 million fewer jobs than it had in February, and there was new concern that the economic impact of the pandemic may linger, given the recent resurgence of new cases.

As the country reopens, it’s important to assess how we can be better prepared to stave off such enormous economic losses during the next wave or the next epidemic. In my view, a few key policy changes will be critical.