CHAPEL HILL — Reopening amid COVID-19 shouldn’t have to mean making a choice between lives and livelihoods, says UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School Professor Christian Lundblad.

“[It’s] is a distraction of language and it’s overly political,” he told WRAL TechWire by email on Monday. “The situation is far better characterized as ‘lives vs. lives,’ and we should think about it that way.”

Tomorrow, a panel of experts from the North Carolina CEO Forum, convened by UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and its affiliated Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, will be offering a briefing via webinar to introduce a new framework aggregating real-time, non-standard economic and public health data.

The aim: to guide critical policy decisions on economic openness.

Ahead of the launch, WRAL TechWire’s Chantal Allam had the chance to pose a few questions to Lundblad about the new framework, and what insights it can offer. Here’s what he had to say:

  • Talk us through the Forum’s new framework for decision-making that aggregates real-time, non-standard economic and public health data, and what it aims to show us.

The forum represents an apolitical, nonpartisan collection of business leaders from across our state, working in concert with the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, the affiliated business policy think tank of UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. The central tenet of the group is to help policymakers, business leaders, and other important decision-makers navigate the tradeoffs associated with an economic reopening. Most important, we emphasize that the healthcare (both physical and mental) and economic costs of the lockdown definitely require attention, and the goal of an economic reopening should be to mitigate those important human costs.

The reality is that a vaccine may be a long way off, and might never arrive. Given this, we strive to promote a willingness among policymakers to engage in informed experimentation by targeting openness designed to generate critical economic activity. The objective is not to minimize positive tests. In fact, it is entirely reasonable to expect that cases will rise as we work through the challenges of carefully facilitating economic activity. Openness to experimentation should instead be subject to evolving hospital capacity. While the economic costs are valid and demand attention, no one should perish for lack of access to standard intensive care treatment. Intelligent experimentation needs to allow cases to rise without exceeding hospital capacity.   There are, of course, critical caveats with respect to vulnerable populations. Nevertheless, we require relatively real-time, disaggregated, regional data to facilitate measurement. Experimentation without measurement is doomed to fail.

Kenan Institute Research director and UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School Professor Christian Lundblad

  • Why did the Forum decide to roll out this new framework?

Timing is essential — we are engaging in a phased reopening in our state, yet business leaders are struggling to figure out how to safely open, restart critical economic activity and potentially capitalize on emerging opportunities. To properly gauge where we are, we have to be able to measure, in relatively real time, how we are doing. Currently, policymakers and business leaders are flying relatively blind.

This framework — navigating the tradeoff between the virus and lockdown costs — will then govern several initiatives we will undertake going forward. The first is a data dashboard designed to facilitate relatively real-time monitoring of the critical components (health and economic) that characterize this tradeoff. From there, we plan to provide guidance on other aspects — including, for example, a primer for business leaders on safety protocols. Further, we are examining the disproportionate effects the shutdown has imposed on different components of our state with an eye to facilitating a match between displaced workers and emerging opportunities.

  • Break it down for us. What does this new dashboard show us in regards to COVID-19 statistics such as deaths, hospitalizations and new positive tests and the current state of the pandemic in NC?

As a first effort, we are building a relatively real-time dashboard to help North Carolinians observe tradeoff outcomes. This will involve disease statistics, adjusted for measurement biases, with attention to the critical implications for hospital capacity. We will also effectively “nowcast” economic activity, with data curated not only from traditional government sources, but also a growing set of non-standard data on economic activity, such as foot traffic, air transport and credit card swipes.

  • What’s the economic importance? Does an economic restart really​ mean that we have to choose between lives versus livelihoods?

“Lives vs. livelihoods” is a distraction of language and it’s overly political. The situation is far better characterized as “lives vs. lives,” and we should think about it that way. The auxiliary healthcare costs associated with the shutdown, with dire consequences for North Carolina workers and their families, have very real implications for the well-being of our citizens. The goal of any economic opening should be to mitigate those important human costs. The only path forward hinges upon a healthy dose of risk-taking informed by real-time health and economic data.

Should we be opening non-essential businesses at this time? And why is this so important?

We should be willing to conduct intelligent experimentation.  These businesses, given the “non-essential” moniker, nevertheless employ many North Carolinians.  It should be noted that the sectors that have been hit hardest, such as leisure, hospitality and general services, employ a sizable fraction of vulnerable hourly workers, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck.  Further, these workers are disproportionately African American and Hispanic, have lower household assets and significantly lower base incomes. These are the same dimensions along which the disease is disproportionately experienced. There is no doubt that the disparate impact on certain communities magnifies the broader injustice they are currently experiencing.

What do you think the next few months are going to look like economically for the state?

Best guess: We will experience a slow economic grind. The likelihood that our economic recovery extends well into 2021 is high at this point, with potential implications for some significant “scarring” as businesses struggle to survive and more workers are disconnected from their jobs.

Unfortunately, North Carolina (and the country overall) is experiencing a significant upward trajectory in positive COVID-19 cases. This is to be expected as the virus migrates to previously less affected areas and critical economic activity begins to resume. This regional variation in new cases highlights the importance of localized, disaggregated data. Such an increase becomes highly problematic only to the extent that it imperils the healthcare system from being able to sufficiently respond. To navigate these knife-edge tradeoffs, both government and citizens must act responsibly.