Illustration: Barbara Kelley

New jobless claims came out this week, putting American unemployment at an estimated 33.4 million. ADP, the payroll-processing company, reports the private sector lost more than 20 million jobs in April alone. Earnings reports are dreadful, and whole sectors—air travel, hospitality—are being wiped out. Nothing will turn around soon.

It is a catastrophe. But you know all that.

What’s needed now? A certain shift in stance and attitude that allows a broader appreciation of our predicament.

Our economy is experiencing a great contraction, a seizing up; it’s becoming smaller, tighter, more airless. As a nation we have rightly focused on the illness that caused all this and the fight to beat it back. That fight can’t let up. When the disease goes down in one place it shows up in another, and a second or third wave is likely; viruses like this don’t knock on the door just once.

But the economic contraction will have repercussions as destructive as the virus itself. People will die and sicken because of lost jobs, lost income and a feeling of no opportunity, no possibility. Alcoholism, drug abuse, anxiety, suicide, strife within families—all these things will follow. And there’s a feeling of terrible generational injustice. My generation is on pause, but the young are on stall, and it’s no good for them. People need to operate in the world to become themselves.

A doctor in New York, who was right from the start and ahead of the curve in his warnings in February, told the patients in his practice this week that social distancing worked. The hospitals reached full capacity but weren’t overwhelmed; against the odds they stood their ground. But he was honest. The victory came with “grave consequences” for employees and businesses and “an increase in domestic violence and child abuse.” People with life-threatening symptoms like chest pain avoided the emergency room, and parents delayed vaccinating their children for measles and meningitis. Patients with mental illness experienced severe increases in their symptoms. “The full extent of these costs will take years to fully understand.”

We have to see the unfolding economic calamity in a new, more present and urgent way, and think about its impact on our culture, our ability to fund things, our standing in the world, our morale.

We can’t grapple only with the illness, we have to grapple with the crash. The bias now should be toward opening, doing everything we can to allow the economy to become itself again, to the degree that’s possible.

Toward that end, two thoughts from two wise men. The first is that we must unleash the creativity of businessmen and -women, an uncalled-on brigade in this battle. Not only doctors and scientists will get us out of this, business must be on the lines, too.

Second, we have to cooperate by doing the things that contain the illness so that businesses can stay open and functioning. A mask isn’t a sign of submission as some idiots claim. It’s a sign of respect, responsibility and economic encouragement. It says, “I’ll do my small part.”

The first wise man is George Shultz, a participant in and observer of history to whom I spoke by phone. “It is a catastrophe,” the former secretary of state and of labor said of the virus and the economy. “The government shuts things down, the government has all the money and is dealing it out, so there’s an expectation the government can get us out of this.” But no government has that power.

Where is the hope? “We have a potentially vibrant private sector. There’s an immense amount of energy and ingenuity and fresh thinking there. They think about how to get themselves in a profitable position, and to do that they have to take into account a lot—supply chains, the health of their employees, the safety of customers. We have to open things up and say to the private sector, ‘Do your job.’ They have creativity, they want to get things up and going again.”

The second wise man: Ken Langone, a founder of Home Depot. If you hear his name a lot lately it’s because he endowed a hospital at the center of New York’s struggle with coronavirus, NYU Langone Medical Center. He said if we do everything we can to make people safe, we’ll be doing everything to get business going.

“There is a bigger risk in business not being open than in staying closed,” he said by phone. “Why? Look, you’re looking at depression, financial problems, taxes will have to go up to pay for all this.” Taxes pay for public services—including the operation of hospitals.

“It isn’t safety or business, it’s safety right now which allows business.” Every American can contribute by observing the protocols we now know by heart—washing hands, maintaining social distance, wearing masks, using hand sanitizer. “If the American people want to be cavalier about this they should be ashamed.”

Last Sunday afternoon he drove to the Home Depot store in Jericho, N.Y. Home Depots have stayed open as essential businesses. “I go up and down the aisle. There wasn’t an empty space in the parking lot. They were buying flowers, garden tools, seedlings—people were all over. People aren’t gonna sit and vegetate at home. The wife says, ‘Don’t sit around on your ass, go buy some paint, paint the house.’ American energy, this is our advantage.”

But the store is careful. “We have distancing. All wore masks. People will have to stand 6 feet away and yell a little. OK with me, I like to yell!”

“We’re not gonna be the same,” he said. “We’re gonna be challenged like never before, but we will pass the test with flying colors. . . . Capitalism brought America to the party. It’s what gonna get us out of this mess.”

But a “big readjustment” in business thinking will be needed to get through the crisis. If a restaurant reopens with half as many customers due to distancing protocols, the owner will have to hike prices, but that will hurt business. The answer is that the landlord needs to lower the restaurant’s rent, and the landlord’s lenders need to adapt in turn. “The financial chain’s gotta be readjusted, concessions up and down the line.”

Fine. We can all be patient with each other as we try to come back, together.

I want to get back to the national morale. All these dreadful economic numbers—you can’t let people sink into defeatism. You can’t let them think there is no hope, or that things in the future are just going to be bad. They are Americans, they know how to suffer—even the ones who’ve never suffered a day in their lives, it’s still in their genes. But they’re like the pioneers, they have to be able to believe while they’re on the long trek that there’s some fertile area around the next bend, or the one after that. They have to know there’s a safe place where they can finally settle.

People need hope. Americans live on it. We must return to life. That is where the bias must be.

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