U.S. COVID-19 Response could Have Avoided Thousands of Deaths – Research
The United States squandered both money and lives in its response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The country could have avoided nearly 400,000 deaths with a more effective health strategy and trimmed federal spending by hundreds of billions of dollars while still supporting those who needed it.
That is the conclusion of a group of research papers released at a Brookings Institution conference this week, offering an early and broad start to what will likely be an intense effort in coming years to assess the response to the worst pandemic in a century.
U.S. COVID-19 fatalities could have stayed under 300,000, against 540,000, if by last May the country had adopted mask, social distancing, and testing protocols while awaiting a vaccine, Andrew Atkeson, economics professor at University of California, Los Angeles noted.
He likened the state-by-state, patchwork response to a car’s cruise control.
As the virus worsened people hunkered down, but when the situation improved restrictions were dropped and people were less careful, with the result that the equilibrium level of daily deaths remains in a relatively narrow band until the vaccine arrived.
Atkeson projected a final fatality level of around 670,000 as vaccines spread and the crisis subsides.
The outcome, had no vaccine been developed, would have been a far-worse than 1.27 million, Atkeson estimated.
The economic response, while mammoth, also could have been better tailored, argued Christine Romer, professor of economics, University of California, Berkeley.
She joins former Treasury Secretary, Lawrence Summers, and several others from the last two Democratic administrations in criticising the spending authorised since last spring, including the Biden team’s 1.9 trillion dollar American Rescue Plan.
While she said the federal government’s more than 5 trillion dollars in pandemic-related spending won’t likely trigger a fiscal crisis, she worries that higher-priority investments will be deferred because of allocations to initiatives like the Pay check Protection Programme.
“Those forgivable small business loans were an interesting and noble experiment, but were also problematic on many levels,” including an apparent cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars for each job saved, she said.
“Spending on programmes such as unemployment compensation and public health was exactly what was called for,” she wrote, but other aspects, particularly the generous one-time payments to families, were largely ineffective and wasteful.
“If something like the 1 trillion dollars spent on stimulus payments that did little to help those most affected by the pandemic ends up precluding spending 1 trillion dollars on infrastructure or climate change in the next few years, the United States will have made a very bad bargain indeed,” Romer wrote.
Biden administration officials, including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, argue the full package was needed to be sure all workers and families are kept economically intact until the job market recovers.
In a separate paper, Minneapolis Federal Reserve researchers, Krista Ruffini and Abigail Wozniak, concluded that the federal programmes largely did what they intended by supporting income and spending, with the impact seen in how consumption changed in response to the approval and lapse of different government payments.
But they also found room for improvement.
Evidence of the PPP’s effectiveness in job retention, for example, was mixed, they found, and increases in food assistance didn’t account for things like higher grocery prices.
“Food insecurity remained elevated throughout 2020,” they noted.
The aim now, they said, should be on determining what worked in order to make the response to any similar crisis more effective.
“The 2020 social insurance system response had many successes.
“Given the scope and scale of the pandemic response, it is critical we continue to evaluate these efforts to understand the full extent of their reach, which populations were helped, who was left out ,” they said.