A group of research papers released at a Brookings Institution conference this week offers an early and broad start to what will likely be an intense effort to assess the response to the worst pandemic in a century.
The upshot is that we didn’t do enough to stop the virus from spreading before the vaccines were available, and we wasted trillions of dollars on giveaways that do nothing to ease economic suffering or help the economy heal.
The United States squandered both money and lives in its response to the coronavirus pandemic, and it could have avoided nearly 400,000 deaths with a more effective health strategy and trimmed federal spending by hundreds of billions of dollars while still supporting those who needed it.
U.S. COVID-19 fatalities could have stayed under 300,000, versus a death toll of 540,000 and rising, if by last May the country had adopted widespread mask, social distancing, and testing protocols while awaiting a vaccine, estimated Andrew Atkeson, economics professor at University of California, Los Angeles.
The outcome, had no vaccine been developed, would have been a far-worse 1.27 million, Atkeson estimated.
The economic response, while mammoth, also could have been better tailored, argued University of California, Berkeley economics professor Christine Romer. She joins former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and several others from the last two Democratic administrations in criticizing the spending authorized since last spring, including the Biden team’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.
“Spending on programs such as unemployment compensation and public heath was exactly what was called for,” but other parts, particularly the generous one-time payments to families, were “largely ineffective and wasteful. If something like the $1 trillion spent on stimulus payments that did little to help those most affected by the pandemic ends up precluding spending $1 trillion on infrastructure or climate change in the next few years, the United States will have made a very bad bargain indeed.”