Tribune-Star Editorial graphic

Nobody wants the worst-case scenario for the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic to unfold. Still, the uncertainty of this moment in time demands proactive steps by public and private leaders.

And, they should work by the old adage, “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.”

The bleak U.S. jobs report issued Friday illuminates the need for wise and prompt policy moves, untainted by ideological allegiances. This virus is oblivious to borders, politics or calendars. The piecemeal approach to dealing with the public health and economic impacts of the pandemic — largely leaving those strategies to the states — continues to expose the lack of a cohesive, comprehensive plan by the federal government.

Friday’s jobs report spells out the economic problems tied to the public health crisis that has claimed more than 76,000 American lives and has not yet substantially abated.

Jobs disappeared by the millions in April, a dramatic turnaround from the pre-pandemic unemployment rate of 3.5% in February. Last month’s rate stood at 14.7%, the highest it has been since the Great Depression. More than 20.5 million jobs ceased in April, the most in American history. Employers had been adding jobs for the previous 113 months, a run of more than nine years.

Indiana, Illinois and the Wabash Valley felt the hit, too. A total of 612,000 Hoosiers have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic began forcing closures of businesses and services to limit its spread. Across the state line, more than 1 million Illinoisans filed for unemployment assistance between March 1 and May 2. Specific state and local jobless figures for April are due in coming weeks, but the Terre Haute metro area typically has higher unemployment rates than most of Indiana.

Signs of hope exist. The weekly number of Indiana residents seeking unemployment aid has decreased since peaking in late March. The same is true nationally, The Associated Press reported Friday.

Economic forecasters also saw paths to a rebound, with some big what-ifs attached. The San Francisco Federal Reserve estimates the jobless rate could recede to 4% by the middle of next year, if shutdowns are lifted quickly.

Simply reopening the country’s businesses and services is not the ticket to recovery, though. First, the public must be confident that their health and safety are not at risk by going to work, sitting in restaurants, shopping and gathering for events, worship and entertainment. Widespread coronavirus testing and tracing, still unrolling unevenly state by state, must become steady, and hospitalizations must continually decline.

America’s economic health improvement depends on the pandemic subsiding enough that citizens feel comfortable returning to their normal daily lives, a Harvard University economist told The AP.

Fortunately, most state governors have assembled economic reopening plans, generally placing the protection of residents’ health as the top priority. Those plans represent a thoughtful approach to securing both the physical and economic health of the people. Unfortunately, the timing and extent of the reopening plans vary from state to state. That patchwork hobbles the recovery, given that the 21st-century economy operates as a national and global network. Nonetheless, the governors’ outlines are crucial, in the absence of reliable leadership from the Trump administration.Reopening plans by Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and Illinois Gov. J.B. Prizker feature different timelines. Holcomb’s “Back On Track Indiana” plan has five stages leading to a full reopening by July 4. Pritzker’s plan more cautiously targets a complete reopening only when a vaccine or effective treatment is found, or new cases of the virus stop. Both plans hinge upon the virus diminishing.

Because COVID-19 will not stop at state borders, it is up to the federal leadership to prepare a uniform economic recovery plan for a worst-case scenario. It may sound odd, but a methodical game plan for a worsening economy would reassure Americans that revitalization is possible, no matter what.

Tribune-Star, Terre Haute

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