Members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives wear personal protective equipment during a vote Monday, April 6, 2020. (Tres Savage)

We haven’t yet reached the peak of COVID-19 outbreak, and it can be hard to envision the end of this crisis. But we know that it will, eventually, pass. When it does, it will leave a deep impact on our society, economy and politics. We are currently getting a clear view of our government operating in emergency mode, and even in the midst of the widespread disruption, it’s worth paying attention to how policymakers are responding.

As the pandemic peaks and then subsides, we will collect and analyze data, and we will be able to understand better what worked and what didn’t. In the meantime, the following are some early lessons from the current crisis. If we learn them well, they will help prepare us for the next one.

Reliance on the federal government is misguided

One of the first things this crisis has made clear is that an over-reliance on the national government’s emergency-response capabilities is an invitation to disaster. From the Centers for Disease Control’s mismanagement of early testing to the Food and Drug Administration’s initial refusal to certify private labs for testing purposes and the Trump administration’s tariffs on imported medical equipment and supplies, the federal government’s early efforts to address this threat only exacerbated the problem.

State governments were woefully unprepared for this emergency. Oklahoma, like most others, had very limited testing capability during the critical early days. Other states, notably New York and California, have found themselves short of supplies, hospital beds and medical personnel. States had to rely on the federal response, which has been slow and inadequate.

Once this crisis has passed, state policymakers should make it a priority to create processes for quickly ramping up production and distribution of equipment, supplies and services in the event of an emergency. They should begin to view the national government as a supplemental resource. Being prepared is never the wrong call and is much better than scrambling when the national government fails to deliver.

The time for educational freedom and innovation is now

The state’s education bureaucracy fumbled its way through the early stages of this outbreak. First, it announced the closure of all schools — including virtual schools — until April 6. Then it decided that every school would, in effect, become a virtual school for the remainder of the academic year.

According to one report, the Oklahoma State Board of Education passed a number of exemptions to regulations in order to provide “flexibility to Oklahoma school districts in how they operate, spend money and educate students.” The modifications included waiving the mandatory length of school days and the school year, physical education requirements, and certain teacher evaluations. The board also approved allowing school districts to use funds designated for textbooks to improve distance-learning access.

The state board’s action prompts the question of why such flexibility is valuable only during a time of crisis. Had schools, teachers and parents already been granted these freedoms, they would have had an easier time adapting to the changed environment. Unfortunately, the state education bureaucracy, teachers’ unions and sympathetic legislators have consistently tied local educators’ hands by attempting to impose uniformity across school districts, regardless of different needs.  

Inflexibility causes confusion, lost educational opportunities, and mountains of frustration. It restricts the creativity and care teachers can offer their students. School districts, teachers and families can address the needs of their communities far better than mandates from legislators or bureaucrats. It should not require a pandemic to open policymakers’ eyes to this truth.

Economic costs are human costs (and vice versa)

One of the most disturbing ideas emerging from this pandemic is that we must choose between a healthy economy and healthy citizens. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick made this idea part of the national discussion by commenting that many of those most vulnerable to the virus, such as the elderly, would be willing to put themselves at risk to allow the country to “get back to work.”

This notion, that economic activity and human life are at odds, completely misses the point. As economist Steven Horwitz has eloquently explained:

All economic costs are human costs and all human costs have economic costs. What do you think the economy IS, if it’s not a complex adaptive system of HUMAN interaction? And when we make choices as humans, or choices about policy that affect humans, we have to recognize those have economic costs as well.

The choice confronting us is not about saving the economy or saving lives. It is about figuring out which course of action will entail the lowest human costs. The longer the government prevents the exchanges that make up economic activity, and as more and more people feel large-scale effects of those restrictions, we will see consequences every bit as real and damaging as those from COVID-19. These costs will come in the form of suicides, crime, child abuse and domestic violence, and stress-related illnesses and deaths.

Current restrictions reduce people’s ability to take care of themselves and their families. And, at the end of the day, that is what the “economy” is about. The gross domestic product, unemployment rate, the stock market and every other economic measure are simply telling us whether or not the majority of us are living better than before.

While public health experts rightly focus on the human costs of not taking action to mitigate the harmful effects of this virus, we cannot ignore the human costs of preventing many of the interactions that improve our lives on a daily basis — what we refer to as economic activity. Ignoring these gives us the false impression that only one course of action entails human costs. Our leaders need to realize this and make decisions accordingly.