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Shutdown Could Kill More Americans Than COVID-19

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File

Thursday's unemployment update confirms that over the last three weeks, nearly 17 million Americans have been laid off because of the shutdown. That's one-tenth of the nation's workforce. It's not just an economic fact. It's a public health disaster. If the shutdown is dragged on, as many public health experts recommend, it is almost certain to kill more Americans than coronavirus.


The academics and public health officials who have concocted models of the virus's spread are telling us that we have to continue the shutdown to save thousands of lives. But none of their models considers the deaths that will be caused by unemployment.

Before the virus hit, America's unemployment rate was 3.5%, the lowest in 50 years. Now Goldman Sachs predicts unemployment could spike to 15% by midyear. A St. Louis Federal Reserve economist grimly predicts 32% unemployment -- worse than during the Great Depression.

No model or guesswork is required to foresee the deadly impact. Job losses cause extreme suffering. Every 1% hike in the unemployment rate will likely produce a 3.3% increase in drug overdose deaths and a 0.99% increase in suicides according to data provided by the National Bureau of Economic Research and the medical journal Lancet. These are facts based on experience, not models. If unemployment hits 32%, some 77,000 Americans are likely to die from suicide and drug overdoses as a result of layoffs. Scientists call these fatalities deaths of despair.

Then add the predictable deaths from alcohol abuse caused by unemployment. Health economist Michael French from the University of Miami and a co-author found a "significant association between job loss" and binge drinking and alcoholism.

The impact of layoffs goes beyond suicide, drug overdosing and drinking. Overall, the death rate for an unemployed person is 63% higher than for someone with a job, according to findings in Social Science & Medicine.


Layoff-related deaths are likely to far outnumber the 60,400 coronavirus deaths predicted through August.

This comparison is not meant to understate the horror of coronavirus for those who get it and their families.

But heavy-handed state edicts to close all "nonessential businesses" need to be reassessed in light of the predictable harm to the lives and health of the uninfected.

The shutdown was originally explained as a way to "flatten the curve," allowing time to expand health care capacity, so lives would not be needlessly lost in overwhelmed hospitals.

When the shutdown is lifted, cases will increase. And some epidemiologists predict the virus could return in a second wave this fall. But as President Donald Trump reported Friday, hospitals are ready now, supplied with ventilators, caregivers and beds. Some cities are now oversupplied. Even New York state, with half the cases in the nation, reports enough beds. Temporary bed capacity there provided by the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is largely empty and unneeded.

Trump's social distancing guidelines expire April 30, suggesting the possibility of restarting parts of the economy shortly thereafter.

To make any reopening possible, schools should resume in most places, so working parents can return to jobs. Even in New York state, the coronavirus epicenter with almost half the deaths, only one child under 10 has died. Some 84% of fatalities in New York are people over 60.


When America faced a polio epidemic in the 1950s, schools were shutdown because polio disproportionately impacted children. It makes little sense with coronavirus, which usually spares the young.

On Tuesday, Trump is announcing a committee focused on how to reopen America for business. That's a reassuring sign. It won't be done by a flick of the switch. It will depend on testing, on accommodations employers make to help workers feel safe and on the confidence level of consumers who ultimately decide when it's again safe to patronize restaurants and theaters.

The president's public health advisers are saying the virus will "determine the timetable." Mr. President, listen also to the silent majority, who will suffer most from an indefinite shutdown. It's not just their jobs that are on the line. Their lives are, too.

Betsy McCaughey is chairman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths and a former lieutenant governor of New York. Contact her at 

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