Fear of catching Covid-19 has cost US economy $352 billion this year

Those not working or looking for a job in part due to infection fears totalled 2 per cent of the labour force. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK – Persistent worries about catching Covid-19 kept about three million Americans out of the workforce, reducing the nation’s economic output by US$250 billion (S$352 billion) in the first half of 2022, according to new research on a phenomenon dubbed “long social distancing”.

Close to 60 per cent of respondents in a monthly survey of tens of thousands of adults said they would not completely return to pre-pandemic activities, such as riding on crowded subways and lifts, and were staying out of the labour force as a result.

Those not working or looking for a job, in part due to infection fears, totalled 2 per cent of the labour force, which translated to the three million figure, the researchers found.

When accounting for the earnings of those people, the effect equates to an annual loss in gross domestic product of about US$250 billion at current prices, the Brookings Institution report said.

“People with a cautious bent or underlying health conditions that place them at higher risk of death or serious illness from Covid-19 can find sound, understandable reasons to continue and even intensify their social distancing practices,” according to the paper’s author. “Long social distancing and its effects are likely to persist for many months or years.”

While many Americans have largely moved on from the pandemic, its long-term economic and societal impacts remain profound, particularly for the millions who struggle to completely recover from Covid-19. Long Covid symptoms range from pulmonary and cardiovascular problems to cognitive issues such as brain fog, and no single diagnosis or treatment applies.

As many as four million Americans have dropped out of the workforce due to long Covid, according to the report, and Harvard University economist David Cutler pegs the total cost of long Covid at US$3.7 trillion.

Some of the long-term social distancers likely overlap with those suffering from long Covid, but the paper’s authors say it is hard to disentangle the two groups. Long social distancing is more common among those who are older, female, earn less and do not have as much formal education, the paper found. It is also more common when opportunities for remote work are less prevalent. 

Among those not in the labour force in September, 452,000 were prevented from looking for work due to the pandemic, according to the government’s latest employment report. That is down from 610,000 in June and 9.7 million people in May 2020.

Nearly 100 million cases and one million Covid-19 deaths have been reported in the United States. The latest variants can dodge the new booster vaccines that were designed for earlier forms of the virus, and which few Americans have received. Beyond the coronavirus, seasonal flu cases are also rising in many states including New York, where health officials have said that flu is already widespread. Most workplaces have also rolled back Covid-19 safety protocols and vaccine mandates.

A separate survey of more than 700 employers from consultant Mercer found that many organisations are still feeling the pandemic’s effects, with absences and disabilities remaining an issue, particularly for large organisations. Leaves of absence related to long Covid were cited as a concern among 14 per cent of those surveyed. BLOOMBERG

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