Grim economics of shutdown balances death against unemployment

Craig Torres

These are the grim economics of the COVID-19 pandemic: Younger workers start getting paid again if everyone goes back to work sooner, but older Americans are more likely to die from spreading infection, according to researchers at the Federal Reserve Banks of Kansas City and Minneapolis.

The tradeoffs aren’t easy.

The researchers estimate that ending shutdowns in early April would have resulted in another 172,000 deaths over the course of the pandemic; that’s about four times the approximately 43,000 people who have died in the U.S. so far.

Meanwhile, the closures are likely to push U.S. unemployment above 30% in the second quarter, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

An ambulance leaves the Gateway Care and Rehabilitation Center on Thursday, April 9, 2020, in Hayward, Calif. Nursing homes are one of the highest-risk centers for coronavirus outbreaks, with several hundred patients infected throughout California.

“The elderly gain much more than the young from extensive reductions in economic activity,” write Andrew Glover of the Kansas City Fed and Jonathan Heathcote of the Minneapolis Fed joined by two University of Pennsylvania economists in research on the distributional impact of pandemic control. “Our baseline calibration suggests that the shutdown in place on April 12 was too extensive but that a utilitarian planner would keep a partial shutdown in place through July.”

President Donald Trump and states are struggling — and at times fighting with each other — over the best strategy to deal with the crisis. The president has stoked tensions with some Democratic governors who are dealing with protests against stringent social-distancing rules, even as his administration backs guidelines that call for states to open up gradually.

The researchers say the costs of reduced economic activity “are disproportionately borne by younger households, which bear the brunt of lower employment.” A second impact is that workers in service sectors where there is a social aspect of consumption, such as restaurants and bars, can’t easily transfer into other types of jobs and bear an even bigger cost.

In addition to a higher death toll from earlier reopenings, mortality rates also are affected if local health systems can’t handle a rising number of cases. Ending shutdowns on April 12 would have more than doubled the share of the population infected than if the closings continued into June, the economists found.

Under the scenario of an early end, “infections skyrocket first in the workplace and then at home and during shopping trips, translating into more infections among the old,” the economists write. “Although the old are only half as likely as the young to become infected, conditional on becoming infected, they are over six times as likely to eventually require hospitalization.”

In a scenario of 50% economic mitigation until the end of June, “the demand for hospital care almost never exceeds capacity, with a modest exception in the weeks of April,” they estimate.