COVID-19: How Do We Re-open the Economy?

Following five clear steps will create the confidence needed for both the consumer and business decision-making which is crucial to a strong recovery.

Expert comment Updated 15 September 2020 Published 21 April 2020 3 minute READ
Chain wrapped around the door of a Saks Fifth Avenue Inc. store in San Francisco, California, during the COVID-19 crisis. Photo by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Chain wrapped around the door of a Saks Fifth Avenue Inc. store in San Francisco, California, during the COVID-19 crisis. Photo by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

With the IMF forecasting a 6.1% fall in advanced economy GDP in 2020 and world trade expected to contract by 11%, there is intense focus on the question of how and when to re-open economies currently in lockdown.

But no ‘opening up’ plan has a chance of succeeding unless it commands the confidence of all the main actors in the economy – employees, consumers, firms, investors and local authorities.

Without public confidence, these groups may follow official guidance only sporadically; consumers will preserve cash rather than spend it on goods and services; employees will delay returning to work wherever possible; businesses will face worsening bottlenecks as some parts of the economy open up while key suppliers remain closed; and firms will continue to delay many discretionary investment and hiring decisions.

Achieving public confidence

Taken together, these behaviours would substantially reduce the chances of a strong economic bounce-back even in the absence of a widespread second wave of infections. Five key steps are needed to achieve a high degree of public confidence in any reopening plan.

First, enough progress must be made in suppressing the virus and in building public health capacity so the public can be confident any new outbreak will be contained without reverting to another full-scale lockdown. Moreover, the general public needs to feel that the treatment capacity of the health system is at a level where the risk to life if someone does fall ill with the virus is at an acceptably low level.

Achieving this requires the government to demonstrate the necessary capabilities - testing, contact tracing, quarantine facilities, supplies of face masks and other forms of PPE (personal protective equipment) - are actually in place and can be sustained, rather than relying on future commitments. It also needs to be clear on the role to be played going forward by handwashing and other personal hygiene measures.

Second, the authorities need to set out clear priorities on which parts of the economy are to open first and why. This needs to take account of both supply side and demand side factors, such as the importance of a particular sector to delivering essential supplies, a sector’s ability to put in place effective protocols to protect its employees and customers, and its importance to the functioning of other parts of the economy. There is little point in opening a car assembly plant unless its SME suppliers are able to deliver the required parts.

Detailed planning of the phasing of specific relaxation measures is essential, as is close cooperation between business and the authorities. The government also needs to establish a centralised coordination function capable of dealing quickly with any unexpected supply chain glitches. And it must pay close attention to feedback from health experts on how the process of re-opening the economy sector-by-sector is affecting the rate of infection.

Third, the government needs to state how the current financial and economic support measures for the economy will evolve as the re-opening process continues. It is critical to avoid removing support measures too soon, and some key measures may have to continue to operate even as firms restart their operations. It is important to show how - over time - the measures will evolve from a ‘life support’ system for businesses and individuals into a more conventional economic stimulus.

This transition strategy could initially be signalled through broad principles, but the government needs to follow through quickly by detailing specific measures. The transition strategy must target sectors where most damage has been done, including the SME sector in general and specific areas such as transport, leisure and retail. It needs to factor in the hard truth that some businesses will be no longer be viable after the crisis and set out how the government is going to support employees and entrepreneurs who suffer as a result.

The government must also explain how it intends to learn the lessons and capture the upsides from the crisis by building a more resilient economy over the longer term. Most importantly, it has to demonstrate continued commitment to tackling climate change – which is at least as big a threat to mankind’s future as pandemics.

Fourth, the authorities should explain how they plan to manage controls on movement of people across borders to minimise the risk of new infection outbreaks, but also to help sustain the opening-up measures. This needs to take account of the fact that different countries are at different stages in the progress of the pandemic and may have different strategies and trade-offs on the risks they are willing to take as they open up.

As a minimum, an effective border plan requires close cooperation with near neighbours as these are likely to be the most important economic counterparts for many countries. But ideally each country’s plan should be part of a wider global opening-up strategy coordinated by the G20. In the absence of a reliable antibody test, border control measures will have to rely on a combination of imperfect testing, quarantine, and new, shared data requirements for incoming and departing passengers.

Fifth, the authorities must communicate the steps effectively to the public, in a manner that shows not only that this is a well thought-through plan, but also does not hide the extent of the uncertainties, or the likelihood that rapid modifications may be needed as the plan is implemented. In designing the communications, the authorities should develop specific measures to enable the public to track progress.

Such measures are vital to sustaining business, consumer and employee confidence. While some smaller advanced economies appear close to completing these steps, for many others there is still a long way to go. Waiting until they are achieved means higher economic costs in the short-term. But, in the long-term, they will deliver real net benefits.

Authorities are more likely to sustain these measures because key economic actors will actually follow the guidance given. Also, by instilling confidence, the plan will bring forward the consumer and business decision-making crucial to a strong recovery. In contrast, moving ahead without proper preparation risks turning an already severe economic recession into something much worse.