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Opinion: Defeating coronavirus at what cost?

We need to keep coronavirus deaths to an absolute minimum. Is an economic catastrophe the right way to do this? Isolate the vulnerable, but not everyone else, says DW's Bernd Riegert.

US President Donald Trump earlier this week warned that the cure for COVID-19 must not be worse than the virus itself. British philosopher Francis Bacon, incidentally, is credited as the one who coined the phrase the "remedy is worse than the disease," around 1600. He was concerned that political uprisings could cause far worse consequences than intended.

Currently, Europe seems to be making a similar mistake, opting for a cure that's more dangerous than the novel coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2, itself. Across the continent, protecting high-risk groups is given top priority. But to achieve this, we are witnessing a shutdown of our economic and public life, which means each day, we are losing billions of euros. The European Union has a daily average economic output worth €45 billion ($48.7 billion), after all.  

Economic recession looms

I think this coronavirus remedy could in fact be more harmful than the pandemic itself. Halting economic activity, closing national borders, imposing lockdowns and trying to out-do one another in adopting ever more radical safety measures will lead to a recession of unprecedented proportions. It will eat away at our wealth, and could tip states into bankruptcy. This abrupt economic standstill will send shockwaves around the globe and could precipitate a collapse of our societal order.

DW's Bernd Riegert

DW's Bernd Riegert

Nobody knows how long this economic shutdown will last. It could be several weeks, or even months. And I doubt that any state, no matter how rich, can compensate for income that citizens are losing, and also prevent thousands of companies from going bankrupt — at least not in the long term. That's why promises the state will do everything in its power to do just this ring hollow. The German government plans to take on some €150 billion in debt this year — the equivalent of Germany's economic output in just 16 days — to keep the country ticking along amid the shutdown. Clearly, this is no permanent solution.

If, as we are told, older people with pre-existing medical conditions such as lung disease, diabetes or liver damage are more likely to suffer serious complications from COVID-19, we should quarantine them for two months — yet refrain from shutting down public life. Granted, this would mean forcing 30 million people in Germany to self-isolate. But that would surely be preferable to forcing all 83 million Germans to practice social distancing.

Prolonged state of emergency?

If we're serious about minimizing the strain on our national health care system, we will have to slow down the infection rate over the course of many months. Flattening the curve, however, has such serious economic consequences that this does not represent a long term strategy. And the example of Italy illustrates that even draconian security measures have not spared the country's health care system from becoming overwhelmed by the pandemic. We need to realize that Germany and other states might find themselves in a similarly desperate situation, with many more COVID-19-related deaths on the horizon. We're facing a natural disaster that cannot be averted.

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Hospitals are lacking beds and ventilators. The German government should take the billions of euros it has pledged to buoy up the economy and instead use them to build temporary hospitals and train up additional medical staff. Putting this money in the health care sector would be much more sensible than closing universities and the like, forcing most businesses to shut and people to self-isolate.   

We can only slow the outbreak

Social distancing will help slow the virus outbreak, but it won't bring it to a halt. Virologists and even German Chancellor Angela Merkel expect that ultimately 60 to 70% of people in the country will contract the SARS-CoV-2 virus — though not all will fall ill. And we need to accept the reality that as the novel coronavirus continues to spread, 1% of those infected will subsequently die.

We should, of course, do everything in our power keep everyone who has fallen ill with COVID-19 alive. But the remedies must have their limits. We cannot risk a devastating societal crisis that has far worse consequences than the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak itself. Not all European states, by the way, are pursuing a panic-induced and disproportionate strategy like Germany. Take Sweden, for example, where authorities have called on people to act sensibly, yet refuse to shut down the economy.

Disproportionate measures

It's unclear why this novel coronavirus is stirring up such hysteria. Each year, for example, more than 3,000 people die in road accidents in Germany and Italy. While this is a sizable mortality figure, nobody would ever consider banning cars in either country. Why? Because that would be just as disproportionate as keeping European states on lockdown for weeks to combat the coronavirus outbreak.