The case for a paid shut down

We’re vaccinating more than ever — why a shut down?

Things have been looking up lately in the pandemic — cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all trending downwards and we are finally vaccinating more people. It finally looks like there some light at the end of the tunnel. But I’ll confess I am not feeling all of the optimism — we have just passed a grim milestone of 500,000 dead from this pandemic and President Biden has warned we may lose upwards of 600,000 people, that’s 100,000 more people. Our metrics were trending downwards but are going up again. More death is not a predetermined outcome, we can take steps to stop this level of devastation — but only if we implement a nationwide, paid shut down.

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The concept of a paid shut down is simple and has been used to control the spread of the virus abroad. Monthly checks of $2,000-$3,000 would be sent out and a stay at home order would be issued for a few weeks, much like in the spring. This would allow people to weather the storm of not working and allow essential workers to choose whether or not they want to work in the midst of a pandemic. Hazard pay would have to be high and quality PPE would have to be provided to the essential workers who work during this time. These types of shutdowns are what allowed countries like New Zealand and Australia to effectively suppress the virus; we may not be able to achieve the same result now, but we can further lower the death rate. The idea of a shutdown isn’t necessarily unpopular, a poll taken in December showed that a one month shut down was supported by more than 50% of Americans.

Some may point to the decline in cases and deaths and say that such a drastic step is not necessary. However, there are a number of variants spreading; the more infectious and deadly UK variant is predicted to be the dominant variant in the US by the end of March. This is on top of others like the South African and Californian variants that can potentially weaken the effectiveness of vaccines. If the virus continues to spread, we risk more variants developing and potentially further weakening the vaccines. We also don’t know what exactly is causing this drop in cases or if it will stay like this. The Brazilian city of Manaus offers a cautionary tale — once thought to have achieved herd immunity, a second wave ravaged the city in January despite high seroprevalence.

Then there are the perceived costs of the shut down itself. Many have called for an “end to the lockdowns” citing mental health problems, suicide, loneliness, hunger and job loss. These are all valid and real problems, however, the United States has not had a true national shut down since the spring. Plenty of things have remained open; despite this, the economy has not recovered completely. This is because a significant amount of people are rightfully choosing to stay home and not risk catching a deadly virus. — restaurants in particular have suffered from this. The government has outsourced social distancing as an individual, rather than a collective responsibility and as a result, people are being forced to choose between prolonged isolation or exposure to a potentially deadly virus. In fact, in New Zealand, there is evidence to suggest that shut downs did not reduce wellbeing.

The government has outsourced social distancing as an individual, rather than a collective responsibility and as a result, people are being forced to choose between prolonged isolation or exposure to a potentially deadly virus.

Even if a surge does not come, there lies the potential for racial disparities to get even worse. In Los Angeles County, the Latinx community saw a 1000% increase in COVID-19 deaths since November and Black, Indigenous and Asian communities have also been hit hard nationally. This has a lot to do with where people work — more than 50% of Black, Latinx and Indigenous workers work in person. With vaccination rates continuing to lack for Black and Latinx people — with the relaxation of restrictions and new variants — we could see hard hit communities become further devastated even as overall rates drop.

A paid shut down hits the pause button. It gives us more time to orderly vaccinate people and fix our processes — it also allows us to share more of our vaccine supply with other countries, as experts have warned fighting variants takes a global effort. It allows us to address concurrent crises in hunger and evictions by providing people with the paid income support that has been desperately needed throughout this crisis. Crucially, it provides an incentive for social distancing — people would feel taken care of and not abandoned by their government. Trust in institutions is fraying at a critical time, people are tired of the guidance changing and being told to wear more masks. But beyond any of these arguments, it saves lives. We should not be satisfied with any life being rendered as collateral damage. We can save more people from needless grief.

We should not be satisfied with any life being rendered as collateral damage. We can save more people from needless grief.

There will be short term costs, but we have been paying the price for ignoring the virus for the past year; the long term physical, mental and emotional costs of not acting further are too great. Democrats have the majorities in both houses of congress to make a paid shutdown happen, they should act now before it’s too late.

Abdullah Shihipar is a writer and leads Narrative Projects and Policy Impact at the People, Place and Heath Collective at the Brown University School of Public Health.

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