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Walking the Coronavirus Containment Tightrope: How Countries Balance Saving Lives and the Economy – The Wall Street Journal

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As the world relaxes its lockdowns against the coronavirus pandemic, the early results range from fragile success to worsening crisis.

Much of East Asia and Europe has suppressed the pandemic’s first wave and is fighting to keep infections down to a manageable level. But contagion is still spreading strongly in the U.S., Latin America and India, among other places, leaving countries with a choice between the economic pain of renewed restrictions on daily life or accepting the human toll of mass infections.

The divergent experiences of reopening show some of the main lessons learned so far from fighting the coronavirus, say epidemiologists and other scientists studying the pandemic. Strict lockdowns slammed the brakes on exponentially growing virus outbreaks. Countries that locked down quickly suffered fewer deaths than countries that acted late. Timing is also proving crucial in lifting lockdowns: Infections are accelerating in countries that reopened before they had suppressed the first wave.

Above all, some countries used the weeks of lockdown better than others to develop less drastic, more sophisticated ways to fight the virus.

Grave diggers in Manaus, Brazil.



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Tommaso Protti for The Wall Street Journal

“Lockdowns work, in the sense that extreme social-distancing measures stop transmission. But they’re a short-term tactic. What you’re doing is buying yourself time,” says John Lessler, epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “When you reopen your economy, you have to have a strategy in place.”

Most public-health experts agree over what the strategy should look like: boost the capacity to test, trace and isolate virus carriers, and find a sweet spot for social-distancing rules in daily life that keeps infection risks low but also let the economy breathe. Nearly all governments talk in such terms, but some countries have made considerable progress, while others, including the U.S., are struggling to coordinate their efforts.

“A lot of what you see in the shape of infection curves is how well countries used the time of their lockdowns,” says Solomon Hsiang, director of the Global Policy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. European countries that suppressed the first wave and have so far reopened with only limited upticks in infections “used the time to set up systems for testing and contact-tracing that can bear the weight after lockdowns,” he says. “In the U.S., we didn’t do that. We wasted the time.”

Italy, the first country outside Asia to be hit badly by the virus, reacted late and had the world’s deadliest outbreak until the U.S. overtook its death toll. But since Italy reopened in May, infections have continued to decline, to around 200 a day currently. Many of those are asymptomatic cases discovered via large-scale blood testing—detection capabilities that Italy didn’t have before.

Italy remains nervous about the danger of the virus bouncing back if people relax too much or too many cases evade its new test-and-trace systems. Several European countries have grappled with clusters of fresh infections since reopening, including Germany, Spain and Poland. The numbers remain much lower than in March and April, however.

Keeping new infections low is proving hard work everywhere. Even East Asian countries widely lauded for their robust virus-fighting capabilities, such as South Korea and Singapore, have grappled with new clusters of cases. Israel, which suppressed the first wave with a rapid lockdown, shows how quickly progress can evaporate: Suddenly resurgent infections have prompted the government to partially reverse the reopening of the economy.

Asian countries such as South Korea are widely lauded for their robust virus-fighting capabilities.



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Jean Chung for The Wall Street Journal

The slow return of international travel poses another challenge to countries that have kept domestic contagion low. Greece locked down quickly after discovering its first coronavirus cases, a reaction typical of countries that feared they lacked the health-care resources to cope with a large outbreak. Now, Greece is detecting infections among tourists, and trying to balance the health risks with the needs of its tourism-dependent economy.

Only painful options remain for countries with surging infections that have already been through economically costly lockdowns. Shutting down the economy a second time could test societies’ cohesion and financial reserves to breaking point. Developing countries that lack the social-benefit systems of West European nations already struggled to support their idled workers during the first lockdown.

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From poorer countries such as India to the rich U.S., economic pressure on households was one of the main factors that led authorities to lift restrictions despite still-high contagion.

“The best strategy for poorer countries is to make sure that the population are taking precautions, wearing masks and doing social distancing, in order to gain time to ramp up surveillance, testing and contact-tracing capabilities,” says Swapnil Mishra, a public-health researcher at Imperial College, London.

Social-distancing circles in a park in Milan. Since Italy reopened in May, infections have continued to decline.



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Francesca Volpi for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Mishra co-wrote one of the first peer-reviewed studies of lockdowns’ impact on contagion, using data on coronavirus deaths in 11 European countries to infer how business closures, stay-at-home orders and other measures affected the spread of the virus. The study found lockdowns sharply slowed infection rates and saved around 3.1 million lives in Europe compared with unfettered exponential outbreaks in the continent.

Mr. Hsiang’s team at Berkeley published another major peer-reviewed study on lockdowns, using econometric methods to estimate the impact on infection rates of specific social-distancing policies in the U.S. and selected European and Asian countries. The study found that infections were doubling roughly every two days, an explosive pace that was curbed by draconian policy efforts and the cooperation of ordinary people.

The problem now is how to maintain such coordinated action, says Mr. Hsiang. “It’s an endurance challenge against an invisible adversary.”

A third recent paper, a survey of data from 84 countries by researchers at the MIT Sloan School of Management, argues that societies’ motivation to maintain social distancing is the key to the next phase—and that the worst of the pandemic still lies ahead next winter. The second wave, warns the MIT study, could be concentrated in a few large countries including India and the U.S.

“The outlook for the epidemic remains grim, with most nations settling into a steady state of cases and deaths that, while below their peaks, are troublingly large,” the MIT researchers warn.

Related Video

As the coronavirus continues to spread around the globe, companies and academic labs are racing to develop a vaccine that would help society get back to normal. But there could also be costs to moving too quickly. WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez explains. Photo illustration: Laura Kammermann

Write to Marcus Walker at marcus.walker@wsj.com

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Biden Fills Yellen-Led Economy Team, Risks Clash on Budget Chief – BNN

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President-elect Joe Biden rolled out the first set of nominations for his economic team on Monday, formally announcing his selection of Janet Yellen to be Treasury secretary, Neera Tanden to lead the Office of Management and Budget and Cecilia Rouse to head the Council of Economic Advisers.

Biden also announced his intent to nominate Adewale Adeyemo, a former senior adviser at BlackRock Inc., to be deputy Treasury secretary. Adeyemo is a Nigerian-born attorney and president of the Obama Foundation.

“As we get to work to control the virus, this is the team that will deliver immediate economic relief for the American people during this economic crisis and help us build our economy back better than ever,” Biden said in a statement.

If confirmed, the nominations of Yellen, Tanden and Rouse would be the first time the top three Senate-confirmed economic positions went to women. Tanden’s nomination already appeared to be in trouble with Senate Republican aides expressing opposition on Sunday even before it was formally announced.

Biden has also tapped two economic advisers from his presidential campaign, Jared Bernstein and Heather Boushey, to be members of the CEA.

Biden did not announce his pick for a key White House economic post, director of the National Economic Council. But Brian Deese, another BlackRock executive who served in the Obama administration, is likely to be offered the job, people familiar with the matter said.

Drew Brandewie, an aide to Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn, said on Twitter that Tanden “stands zero chance of being confirmed.”

Another aide said Republicans in the Senate would certainly block Tanden, who’s viewed as too progressive even though she’s also had squabbles with some on the left.

The choices show Biden turning to experienced Washington hands as he begins building his economic team, with an eye toward racial and gender diversity.

The group of six nominees includes three women, two African Americans and an Indian American as Biden seeks to put women and minorities in jobs historically held by White men.

Embedded Image
Neera Tanden, president and chief executive officer of the Center for American Progress, speaks during the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., on Tuesday, April 30, 2019.  (Bloomberg) 

He received some criticism from Representative Jim Clyburn, the most senior Black lawmaker in Congress, who is credited with helping Biden with the South Carolina primary, a win that sped his progress toward the nomination.

In an interview with Juan Williams for his column in The Hill newspaper, Clyburn indicated he was disappointed the president-elect had named just “one Black woman so far” to a senior position — Linda Thomas-Greenfield as United Nations ambassador.

“I want to see where the process leads to, what it produces,” Clyburn added. “But so far it’s not good.”

Tanden, an Indian-American who currently leads the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, worked on the Obama administration’s health-care reform and was a close adviser to Hillary Clinton.

Rouse also worked in the Obama administration as a member of the CEA and is currently dean of Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs. If confirmed, she would be the first African American to chair the CEA.

Adeyemo would bring international economic experience to the Biden team, complementing Yellen’s more domestic focus over the course of her academic and government career. Adeyemo was deputy chief of staff to Jack Lew when he was Treasury secretary and was the first chief of staff of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under Elizabeth Warren.

Bernstein and Boushey are well liked by progressives. Boushey, who runs the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, has advocated for paid parental leave and raising the minimum wage. Bernstein was Biden’s chief economic adviser in the White House during President Barack Obama’s first term.

Biden’s team will inherit a U.S. economy rocked this year by the coronavirus pandemic, and will have to try to sustain its revival. There’s already signs of increasing fragility as virus infection rates increase and states begin to lock down businesses again. That threatens the nascent recovery of the labor market, with jobless claims ticking up and payroll gains forecast to slow further in November.

–With assistance from Katia Dmitrieva, Catarina Saraiva and Erik Wasson.

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COVID-19 has sucked the oxygen out of the room on the climate economy – CBC.ca

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The Niagara Falls of news releases into any journalist’s in-box attest that there is always plenty of contention for the moving spotlight of media attention.

As early as March of this year, the Pew Research Institute, a think-tank that studies media trends, observed that people had become “immersed in COVID-19 news.”

And while other issues have occasionally nudged the pandemic and its economic impact off centre stage, it is hard to think of many subjects that have so consistently hogged the limelight for so many months in a row.

According to one of Canada’s leading environmental economists, that single-minded focus has both diverted and delayed attention on a subject that he expected in 2020 would finally get its moment in the sun: climate change.

Shut out by pandemic

“For two months or even three, people like me were shut right out because ministers were dealing with aspects of COVID in cabinet,” said Mark Jaccard, one of Canada’s foremost climate scientists who is often described as an architect of the pioneering carbon-pricing scheme introduced by the B.C. Liberals back in 2008.

With what may have turned out to be bad timing, the Simon Fraser University professor’s political manual, The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success, finally hit bookstores in February — just before the pandemic began to dominate the news agenda.

While inevitably disappointed, the longtime adviser to governments on practical climate economic policy remains philosophical. Jaccard’s biggest idea — one that some climate activists may find frustrating — is that the only realistic path to defeating climate change is political action to install “climate-sincere” politicians and governments and then hold their feet to the fire.

This was supposed to be a year of climate action in Canada, but Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam, left, gets more recognition points than Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

While personal attempts to eat less meat, say, or buy an electric car make individuals feel good about themselves and may influence a few others, Jaccard insists that the short-term economic advantages of adding carbon to the atmosphere are so lucrative that they require concerted government action to push things the other way.

And putting political pressure on governments means garnering media and public attention, something harder to do when the whole world is worried about something that seems far more pressing — namely a deep economic recession caused by a deadly health crisis that just won’t go away.

“You have policy windows,” Jaccard said, referring to those moments such as after Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans and the surrounding area in 2005, or following the past year’s devastating forest fires in Australia and the U.S. west, when the public and politicians are forced to take climate issues seriously.

He said COVID-19 is just the 2020 version of a series of global events that have redirected attention away from the climate change issue just as it was beginning to take off.

‘We got really excited’

“We got really excited about the Kyoto Protocol in the late 1990s, and then along came 9/11 — and everyone got diverted with the U.S. wanting to invade countries in the Middle East,” Jaccard said, referring to terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

“And then you could say the same thing when we got excited about Hurricane Katrina, and you had Republicans and Democrats in the mid-2000s putting together policy … and China started to say, ‘Uh-oh we better get going.’ And then along came the [2008] financial crisis.”

As the world, and especially Canada, seemed to be getting the pandemic under control during the summer, climate advocates were hoping their issue would come to the top of the agenda. But subsequent waves of the disease once again pushed COVID-19 stories to the top of the “most read” columns, narrowing the news hole for climate coverage.

While political analysts were expecting a nod to green spending in Monday’s fiscal update, they say short-term allocations will mostly be diverted, quite reasonably, to bailing out parts of the Canadian economy devastated by a new round of pandemic lockdowns.

Farmers use fire to clear land in the Amazon basin. Economist Mark Jaccard says schemes to lock carbon in biological systems does not guarantee it will stay there for the long term. (Rickey Rogers/Reuters)

Jaccard says that has added to delays, as the latest government plan — to use post-pandemic economic recovery spending to advance the green agenda in a way that will finally put Canada on a path to Paris 2030 — has meant previous policy plans and spending have been deferred.

Despite the latest postponement, Jaccard remains hopeful. Conversations with conservatives have left him with the impression that even a change of government would not prevent Canada from moving forward on the climate change agenda.

And while he thinks the Trudeau government remains “climate-sincere,” he says media attention is essential to keep pressure on the Liberals not to spend too much money on political feel-good plans, such as tree planting, at the expense of real measures to cut carbon output. As The Economist reported recently, growing trees in one place doesn’t mean they aren’t being cut down elsewhere, and natural systems tend to return their carbon back to the atmosphere.

“If you’re allowing someone to keep polluting and then you’re sort of convincing yourself that you have offset that or compensated it,” Jaccard said, “the careful evidence doesn’t support that.”

Part of Jaccard’s continued optimism is due to the election of what looks like a climate-sincere Democratic government south of the border that — even without the support of a Republican Senate — can begin to make greenhouse gas-limiting regulations.

The election of a Joe Biden presidency may have created a new “policy window,” he said, as the U.S. moves toward existing Canadian schemes such as the coal phaseout regulation, where Canada is a leader. Meanwhile, Jaccard expects a U.S. push toward such things as the clean fuel standard, which will coax Canada into following suit as manufacturers insist on one set of rules for all of North America.

Follow Don Pittis on Twitter: @don_pittis

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Biden looks to fill out economic team with diverse picks – EverythingGP

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Yellen became Federal Reserve chair in 2014 when the economy was still recovering from the devastating Great Recession. In the late 1990s, she was President Bill Clinton’s top economic adviser during the Asian financial crisis. Under Biden she would lead the Treasury Department with the economy in the grip of a surging pandemic.

If confirmed, Yellen would become the first woman to lead the Treasury Department in its nearly 232-year history. She would inherit an economy with still-high unemployment, escalating threats to small businesses and signs that consumers are retrenching as the pandemic restricts or discourages spending.

NEERA TANDEN, Office of Management and Budget director

Tanden is the president and CEO of the liberal think-tank Center for American Progress. She was the director of domestic policy for the Obama-Biden presidential campaign, but she first made her mark in the Clinton orbit.

Tanden served as policy director for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. Before that, she served as legislative director in Clinton’s Senate office and deputy campaign manager and issues director for Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign. She also served as a senior policy adviser in the Bill Clinton administration.

If confirmed, she would be the first woman of colour and the first South Asian woman to lead the OMB, the agency that oversees the federal budget.

BRIAN DEESE, director of the White House National Economic Council

Deese, a former senior economic adviser in the Obama administration and now the managing director and global head of sustainable investing at BlackRock, would be the top economic adviser in the Biden White House. He worked on the auto bailout and environmental issues in the Obama White House, where he held the title of deputy director of both the NEC and the OMB.

CECILIA ROUSE, chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers

Rouse is a labour economist and head of Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs. She served on the CEA from 2009 to 2011, and served on the NEC from 1998 to 1999 in the Clinton administration.

Notably, she organized a letter earlier this year signed by more than 100 economists calling for more government action to mitigate the fallout for Americans caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Rouse, who is Black, would be the first woman of colour to chair the CEA.

Biden is also expected to name Heather Boushey, the president and CEO of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, and Jared Bernstein, who served as an economic adviser to Biden during the Obama administration, to serve on the council. Both Boushey and Bernstein advised Biden during the presidential campaign.

___

Associated Press writers Alexandra Jaffe, Christopher Rugaber and Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.

Aamer Madhani, The Associated Press

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