MOST OF EUROPE and all 50 of America’s states are in various stages of reopening, but why, exactly?

The pandemic is still with us. After the first tentative steps to ease the lockdown in Germany, the most successful large European country in halting the spread of the virus thanks to massive testing, the disease has shown signs of spreading faster.

At least Germany is opening slowly, as is the rest of the European Union.

By contrast, the United States, with the highest number of deaths and most haphazard response to COVID-19 of any advanced nation, is opening chaotically, each state on its own. Some are lifting restrictions overnight.

Researchers expect the reopenings to cause thousands of additional deaths.

Two weeks after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began reopening the state’s economy, Texas experienced the single highest rise in cases since the beginning of the pandemic. Since Nebraska reopened May 4, COVID-19 cases in Colfax County alone have surged 1,390%, according to the Washington Post.

Experts warned that Dallas, Texas, Houston, Texas, Florida’s Gold Coast, Alabama and other places in the south that have rapidly reopened their economies are in danger of a second wave of COVID-19 infections over the next month.

May 18, Ford Motor Co. reopened its large North American assembly plants. May 19, Ford closed and then reopened a Chicago, Ill., plant twice in less than 24 hours after two workers tested positive for COVID-19. Wednesday, Ford temporarily shut its truck plant in Dearborn, Mich., after an employee tested positive then, promptly resumed operations.

Why reopen so abruptly when COVID-19 continues to claim lives?

The main reason given is to get the economy moving again. But this begs the question of why an economy exists in the first place other than to promote the well-being of people within it.

Ford’s plants are vital to its profitability and Ford’s profitability is important to jobs in the Midwest. But surely the well-being of Ford workers, their families, the people of Chicago and Dearborn and others in the Midwest are more important.

A related argument is that workers are clamoring to return to their jobs. “People want to get back to work,” Donald Trump has asserted repeatedly since March. Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity claimed people are dying to get back to work, seemingly unaware of the irony of his words.

Polls suggest otherwise. Americans whose jobs require them to leave home express trepidation about doing so; nearly 60% fear exposing their families to COVID-19.

Many Americans must return to work because they need the money, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Rich economies can support their people for years if necessary. During World War II, America shut down most of its economy for nearly four years.

The obstacle right now is a lack of political will to provide such support, at least until enough testing and tracing provide reasonable evidence the pandemic is contained.

Although nearly half of U.S. households report that they’ve lost employment income since mid-March, according to a Census Bureau survey, the extra jobless benefits enacted by Congress are only now starting to trickle out. Trump and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuse to extend them beyond July 31, when they’re scheduled to end.

Meanwhile, states are denying benefits to anyone whose company has called them back.

Finally, Trump and his enablers argue that reopening is a matter of freedom. He has called on citizens to liberate their states from public-health restrictions and Fox News personalities have decried what they call denials of basic freedoms.

Armed protesters have descended on the Michigan state capitol demanding the freedom to work. At the Kentucky statehouse protesters shouted “We want to work” and “We’re free citizens.”

But the supposed freedom to work is a cruel joke when people are forced to choose between putting food on the table and risking their lives. It’s the same perverse ideology that puts workers in harm’s way in the dawn of the industrial age, when robber barons demanded that workers be “free” to work in dangerous factories 12 hours a day.

In truth, there is no good reason to reopen when the pandemic is still raging; not getting the economy moving again, workers clamoring to return to work, the cost of extended income support or because workers should be “free” to endanger themselves.

Let’s be clear. The pressure to reopen the economy is coming from businesses that want to return to profitability and Trump who wants to run for re-election in an economy that appears to be recovering.

Neither is reason enough.



Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. His book “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future” is available.