Life versus livelihood. The debate between the two lies at the heart of our public response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet it seems to set up an intransigent and unpalatable set of alternatives. If we protect lives, then livelihoods will dissipate. If we protect economic livelihood, we do so at the cost of life. Is there a way to resolve the dilemma?

For SFI External Professor Rajiv Sethi of Barnard, there is a way through, and it involves looking beyond the original dichotomy. As Sethi explains in his recent op-ed at The Hill, which he co-authored with his colleague Glenn Hubbard, protecting life is essential to protecting livelihoods: the only sustainable way to protect economic livelihood is to ensure that re-entry into economic life is, and remains, non-life-threatening.

Sethi and Hubbard outline a policy map dedicated to sustainable economic recovery. Widespread strategic testing, rapid testing, and manual contact tracing are among the tactics they recommend to “allow people to return to economic and social life with reasonable confidence that neither they, nor those with whom they interact, are spreading the virus.”

Aren’t these strategies expensive on a large scale? Sethi and Hubbard consider the reality of state budgets and argue that, ultimately, a policy that considers the protection of life essential to economic recovery will come at a far lower cost to life and treasure than will the current fiscal and monetary strategies we are now using to shore up economic losses.

Read the op-ed in The Hill (May 13, 2020)