Stuck in the Netherworld Between Pandemic and Recovery, It’s Time to Say ‘Enough’

Policy makers, business leaders and ordinary folks are living through a once-in-a-generation surge in economic growth but face terrible uncertainty navigating between pandemic and recovery.

Vaccinating 80% of Americans for known strains of COVID-19 will be tough. Getting vaccines to the homeless, poor, and illegal immigrants is especially difficult.

Public health and community service agencies are sending mobile units into those communities but the marginalized are often among those suspicious of good science.

For an NPR-Marist poll, 25% of respondents said they won’t get a shot, 20% of the population is under 16, and both groups include individuals that cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. Vaccines are being tested in adolescents and young children, but it is easy to see that it will be difficult to get to 80%.

Proof of vaccination

Businesses could fully reopen offices, restaurants, concert halls and theaters to workers and patrons showing proof of vaccination. And where enforceable, they could subject participants to temperature checks, testing, digital tracking, and isolation when necessary.

Progressives could scream discrimination. And among too many Republicans and those on the extreme right, everything sensible is denied — social distancing, masks and mentioning digital contact tracing is like suggesting that President Joe Biden burn the Bill of Rights.

It’s time for reasonable people to say enough. Make exceptions with precautions for those medically unable to be vaccinated, but science deniers should not be permitted to block the country from moving forward.

Vaccinations can take us only so far, because among the unvaccinated population new, more lethal variants of COVID-19 can emerge, and the petri dish outside the United States is percolating.

The diplomatic, financial and logistical challenges of quickly vaccinating the developing world are daunting, and in the EU, bureaucratic bungling has put the vaccination process well behind the United States and U.K. We need to accept that too much of the world is a ready host to develop strains that could outsmart our vaccines.

COVID-19 has been detected in more than a dozen species including minks, great apes, lions, tigers, cats, dogs, and pigs. The potential for a new strain that can spread to humans, outsmart public-health agencies, and spread globally is real and palpable.

International travel will likely be limited for several more years. But with catch and release for asylum seekers permitted by the administration, illegal immigration and other realities of globalization, new strains of COVID will find their way into the United States.

Multilateralists have suggested a grand effort to vaccinate the world and contain new pathogens but extra cash and a piece of paper in Geneva won’t take public-health nurses into every hamlet in the developing world.

Commercial contact with most of the world will be limited to zooming and vacationing will be limited to the United States — less perhaps the U.K., Canada, and a few other places that approach 80% vaccination and continue tough protocols for workplaces and public gatherings.

It is amusing to see large corporations building grand workspaces for a new era when folks only commute three days a week — shared desks, common areas, with couches and the like.

We don’t know how workers will be most comfortable and productive. Most folks put value on a private nest with photos of their partners and children and a signed baseball from a trip to the ballpark.

COVID-19 and the netherworld between pandemic and normalcy are forcing us to embrace technologies that have been waiting like orphans among childless adults. We were happy to rely on smartphones for personal finance and amusement but would not readily embrace collaborative technologies and artificial intelligence to save travel time and streamline human interactions.

Now it’s adopt, adapt or don’t survive, but we may be on the cusp of a productivity breakout that ends years of anemic economic growth.

Prolonged pandemics radically change social arrangements. The Black Plague created labor scarcity, caused the peasantry to overturn the feudal order and set Europe on the path to a modern economy.

Churchill purportedly observed that Americans do the right thing but only after having exhausted all the alternatives. In China, the coverup in Wuhan has engendered unrest and as of late April, only 8% of the population has been vaccinated.

Overall, coulds, should, and maybes abound, the country will enjoy some renewed prosperity but Americans won’t be able to fully return to what most consider a normal live for some time to come.

Peter Morici is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.

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