America Chose Sickness, and Lost the Economy

America Chose Sickness, and Lost the Economy

There is no saving the economy without guaranteeing worker health.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began eight months ago, politicians in Washington, particularly Republicans, and particularly Republicans in the White House, have argued that it has an either-or relationship with the economy: Either Americans tolerate some amount of viral spread and enjoy a more vibrant economy, or Americans shut down and watch the economy fail.

That was always a false dichotomy, not least because of the way the novel coronavirus is sickening the American body politic. The virus’s most direct impact on the economy and the workforce has been strangely overlooked. It is killing workers, slowing them down, pushing them to take leave from their jobs, and causing them to drop out of the labor force, hurting businesses, ruining family finances, and slowing the recovery.

The number of confirmed cases now stands at more than 9 million; roughly 225,000 people are dead and an untold number are suffering from long-term, debilitating symptoms. Research from the Integrated Benefits Institute shows that the coronavirus quintupled the number of workers claiming short-term disability benefits due to respiratory conditions from February to March; many employers are seeing significantly more disability and leave claims, costing them something like $20 billion and counting. (That is true despite job losses reducing the number of individuals eligible for benefits, and despite the fact that claims due to workplace injuries and diseases other than the coronavirus have fallen.)