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The coronavirus (COVID-19) is impacting the global economy and raising fears of a recession. What causes a recession and what are the signs? USA TODAY

Trump team failures turned a public health threat into a recession. Other countries used robust testing to target responses and limit economic damage.

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America’s failure to do widespread testing for the coronavirus has forced our economy to its knees. We need to stand up testing before we can rise. While this challenge grew in plain sight for more than two months, President Donald Trump and his administration dismissed the threat and squandered our head start instead of using it to prepare. Many American families will lose loved ones and many tens of millions more will lose paychecks and sales because of this leadership failure.

It did not and does not need to be this way. The extent of economic damage and our ability to respond to it is inextricably tied to our limited capacity to test for coronavirus. Currently, broad quarantine is the only way to preserve Americans’ lives. This will continue until we have one of three capacities available widely: either vaccination, treatment or testing

Vaccines are not likely until next year. Treatments are under investigation, but even if effective their delivery may bump against our health care system’s limited capacities.

However, rapid and accurate testing does exist. South Korea and other countries have implemented widespread testing. We have not. Many Americans have coronavirus but show no symptoms and have not been tested. We are largely blind, unable to distinguish those who should be isolated from those who can carry on, which means that our most effective responses are widespread rather than targeted. Ongoing, broad testing capacity enables us to safely bring down broad quarantine. 

Devastating job losses coming

Economic recession can end only when broad quarantines do. Many labor and consumer markets central to Americans’ lives simply must stop functioning under these conditions. Indiscriminate quarantines mean that Americans are losing jobs faster now than in the lead-up to the Great Recession.

For example, more than 111,000 Ohio workers filed new claims for unemployment insurance last week, more than triple the highest week ever on record back to 1986.

Similar stories are emerging across the nation. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans in a March 13-14 poll reported someone in their family lost a job or had hours cut. The next weekly report on new unemployment claims will devastate all prior records.

Catching people knocked down by these pressures through no fault of their own requires federal borrowing. Only the federal government can run large deficits. State and local government budgets, which must balance, will be crushed by rising costs for health care, unemployment insurance and social safety nets coupled with falling tax revenues.

Unemployment's coming: We helped jobless workers survive the Great Recession. Here's what to do on coronavirus.

Capital markets recognize these threats and are begging the U.S. Treasury to borrow to make this situation right, so the U.S. government can borrow cheaply. This can cushion economic blows, preserve jobs and speed recovery, but until Americans can safely get out of their homes and back to work, economic pain will remain.

Public health failures gave us recession

The president downplayed the threat of COVID-19 for weeks, delaying our ability to test at scale. From January until last week, the president minimized the risk. On Jan. 22, he said, “We have it under control. It's going to be just fine.” Since he claimed Feb. 26 that the number of cases was "going down, not up," the number of identified cases had multiplied by a factor of 859 from 60 to over 51,000, as of late Tuesday afternoon.

The administration did not issue an emergency-use authorization to allow nonfederal labs and companies to develop testing capacity until March 13

USA TODAY editorial on stimulus: 6 ways to soften the economic blow of coronavirus

These failures turned a public health threat into economic recession. Other countries with robust testing capacity have been able to use more targeted public health responses that limit economic damage. We are forced to rely on public health measures that are less targeted and, therefore, more damaging to the economy. Now the president wants to restart the economy by reopening businesses and relaxing social distancing restrictions, even though the spread of coronavirus is still not well understood.

Recently, the president started to prioritize building our capacity to test. Better late than never, since we will need to monitor prevalence and transmission for the foreseeable future. But weeks and perhaps months of lost lives and paychecks will be the price of this reckless delay. Rapidly accelerating our testing capacity will open up possibilities for public health strategies to protect Americans’ lives, limit the length and depth of the recession, and help get the American economy off its knees.

Aaron Sojourner, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, was senior economist for labor in the White House Council of Economic Advisers under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Audrey Dorélien is an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Ezra Golberstein is an associate professor of health policy and management at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. Follow them on Twitter: @aaronsojourner, @audreydorelien and @EGolberstein

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

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