In the 1970s and 1980s, furor arose over our possible use of the “neutron bomb” that macabrely would “kill people, but not destroy property.” The logic of the perverse weapon was that on allied and friendly European ground, outnumbered defensive NATO troops might radiate and destroy invading masses of Soviet armored troops by periodic detonations of low-yield thermonuclear shells, rockets, and bombs.
The ensuing blasts of heat would sear flesh, but would lack commensurate repercussion power to destroy most structures and buildings, and leave far smaller toxic radiation trails. In eerie Strangelovian terms, once the enemy was finished off, returning friendly troops and populations could sort their way among the mass dead to find their infrastructure intact—without “collateral” damage or fear of serious radiation sickness.
In some ways, COVID-19 was our neutron bomb. When we reach the now politically incorrect, taboo term “herd immunity” through vaccinations and antibodies, and when the virus ceases to be a pandemic, the lethal tally may have exceeded 600,000 Americans.
If so, the nation will have lost more countrymen than were killed in World War I and World War II combined—with thousands more suffering disabilities, from “long haul Covid” to stress and psychological impairment from losing livelihoods and lockdown cabin fever.
Americans have additionally suffered likely over $15 trillion or so in economic damage from the lockdowns, lost labor, soaring healthcare costs, and the silent killers of substance, familial, and spousal abuse, along with missed medical procedures and surgeries, aborted K-12 schooling, depression, and suicides. It will take years and millions of hours of scholarship to tally all the losses and damage.
Normally, such a huge human toll would be accompanied by a devastated infrastructure analogous to war-torn Europe in 1945 that took years of investment and labor to reach prewar levels of output. But instead, the virus bomb wafted in, killed hundreds of thousands, destroyed the economy, and now may be waning.
Human Rather Than Inanimate Destruction
Yet to the naked eye, other than the economic destruction of millions of small businesses, whole industries, and enormous psychological trauma that will last for decades, physical America at least looks roughly the same after as before the virus—again, as if neutron bombs were dropped in thousands of sites that killed tens of thousands of us while sparing homes and hospitals.
The virus devastated the aged. About eight in 10 Americans who perished from COVID-19 were over 65. Many were retired. Most suffered from comorbidities. In that regard, it was unlike our two world wars that fell heavily upon 18-30 year olds in the prime of life, robbing the economy of millions of years of future robust productivity.
In amoral considerations of depriving a nation of productive labor and fertility, COVID’s lethal rampage through our long-term healthcare facilities was not comparable to the Meuse-Argonne or the Battle of the Bulge or Okinawa. Yet in moral terms of the preciousness of life, the virus was as bad as war, given the way thousands of unique people simply perished, many in silence and alone, many perhaps unnecessarily, as they were trapped in rest homes that admitted actively infected transfer patients, and others suffocated by a virus that for months no one knew much about. And that tragedy, too, will one day be the source of historical inquiry, as Emmy Award-winning Governor Andrew Cuomo must now fear.
The surreal economic ramifications of this viral radiation will likely have considerable but underappreciated consequences.
The Way Forward?
Take the likely waning of the virus. Given known positive cases of infection, those modeled to have antibodies but who were never tested when infected, and those vaccinated with at least one shot, upwards of 250 million Americans may soon have immunity. And with vaccinations slated to increase to 2 million per day with the arrival of new brands, the nation could see even more radical drops in infectiousness by mid-April.
Warmer spring and summer weather might slow down what’s left of the virus and fuel outdoor economic recovery. Amid all the professionals’ caveats, there remains good reason for hope. Such speculations, of course, are contingent on expectations that there will be no long-term serious side effects from these radically new types of vaccination, and more infectious and perhaps lethal COVID-19 mutants will be treatable with new drugs or preventable by adaptations in existing vaccinations.
We also hope that in the near future there will not be more groundhog day rumors, even if unsubstantiated, of a mysterious gain-of-function, Level-4 lab, neutron bomb viruses. We now fear all rumors of future plagues, in serial fashion devastating our most vulnerable, and yet declared by our experts to be an accidental freak of nature—supposedly birthed in a bat cave or a wet market in China, and thus the fault of no one at all other than our own bad luck.
The strangest thing about the origins of the virus was its Wuhan birthplace—both next to an experimental viral laboratory engaged in dangerous research and a “wet” market that allegedly served as a petri dish for exotic new viruses. Or perhaps stranger was the second phase of the Chinese Communist Party’s exegeses of the pandemic: they transmogrified from momentary contrition to braggadocio about the superior reaction to the pandemic by totalitarians to a defiant “shut up—and what are you going to do about it anyway?”
At home, we find similar paradoxes. Joe Biden has only begun to interrupt the deregulation and tax policies that sparked the historic Trump economic boom of 2017-19 prompting unemployment to reach near-record peacetime lows. It will take time for new taxes, regulations, and elements of the New Green Deal to undermine the foundations of a robust economy.
In addition, the country is currently awash in trillions of dollars in stimulus “funny money,” both allocated and unspent. After nearly a year of a large population spent in confinement, the public’s pent-up demand will be unleashed. A record level of consumer spending will likely follow by the summer. Indeed, the birthing of a recovery boom was already in progress when Donald Trump left office.
Americans for months have put off big-ticket purchases, afraid to go out to car showrooms and appliance stores—much less to book cruises and vacations. They are eager to update, improve—and spend on—their new offices and businesses at home. When they emerge from their cocoons, they will find everything from amusement parks to vacation spots wide-open and eager for discounted business from eager consumers.
Nearly all of our productive capacity—food, fuel, and manufacturing has survived the virus—if not improved, and become more efficient in extremis, as companies like Zoom and Amazon found new ways to increase productivity.
Given its rapid vaccination rate, and large percentages of those with likely antibodies, the United States may be among the first of the larger industrial nations to return to full production and employment. In other words, despite the tragic mass deaths unleashed by the virus, the effort to regain pre-viral levels of economic growth and production will likely become rapid—in contrast for a while to the more stagnant European Union that will take months to catch up to U.S. vaccination rates.
Some economists have compared the likely trajectory of 2021 post-viral America to the second half of 1945 and 1946 when an intact America—in contrast to devastated Europe, the Soviet Union, and Japan—experienced an economic surge. Civilians and soldiers reemerged from wartime conditions in a country untouched by war, but awash in vast deficit spending, pent up demand, and new factories and services ready to be recalibrated to serve consumer demand and population growth.
What are the political consequences of the likely slow waning of COVID-19 and a projected return to near normality?
Shutting down the Keystone XL pipeline, opening up the border in a time of pandemic to illegal immigration, nominating a number of big-government zealots, and institutionalizing unproductive, commissar-like wokism do not promote economic growth.
Yet natural processes are underway that Joe Biden likely will be unable to thwart immediately by his redistributionist policies. So we should imagine that the now labeled “Trump virus” will at some point sooner than later grow dormant. The “Trump quarantine” will then lift, and with it the “Trump recession.” The “Biden vaccination” will help to end the pandemic, along with the number of those previously infected with “Trump antibodies,” as the “Biden recovery” will take off, at least for a few months.
All sorts of known unknowns follow. When will Biden’s tax hikes, new regulations, subsidized green add-ons, gas and oil curtailment, and massive accumulating debt begin to slow things down?
Will a near $30 trillion debt growing at $2 trillion a year, with a progressive laundry list of ever more “essential” entitlements, finally lead to inflation, or stagflation, or permanent zero interest rates—or an abrupt recession, or worse?
No one knows.
But in the political sense, Republicans might wish to prepare for an artificially inflated but robust economy that could last until late in the midterm year 2022. It will do no good to argue that Operation Warp Speed, an end to the failed New York-California blue-state lockdown model, and the remnants of the Trump economic package mostly account for the upswing. The president in power when economies tank or roar gets commensurate blame or credit.
All the talk of a dismal Trump response to the virus will soon and reluctantly wane, as our vaccination rate, our prior national leadership in creating vaccines, and our earlier end to the pandemic will be positively compared with other nations, especially those in Europe. As a result, Biden will transmogrify from a shrill critic of what he inherited to a plagiarist of that recovery.
If Biden and his team get what they wish—a neo-socialist, big government transformation—we will enter tough times. But not yet and perhaps not until after 2022.