Unprepared For The Future

I don’t think any of us are fully prepared for the carnage that is yet to come from the COVID-19 pandemic and the scope of the rebuilding process that will be necessary in the post-pandemic world. Despite the administration’s happy talk of returning to normal, the reality is that this crisis will probably continue for many more months or potentially even years. The refusal of our political leaders, Democrats included, to not only level with the American people about that possibility as well as to plan for it borders on criminal negligence.

As we see the peak of deaths and infections roll across the country over the next few weeks, there seems to an unstated but unfounded supposition that deaths and infections will reach some reduced level where we can safely go back to something resembling normal. Nothing could be further from the truth. Without the proper controls in place, any lifting of isolation orders will simply mean that we will begin another round of uncontrolled infections and more deaths.

In order to even contemplate any thing resembling normalcy, we will need a nationwide, comprehensive program of testing, contact tracing, and mandatory isolation, (TTI for short). The preparations for such a program, which will require billions of dollars in funding and perhaps hundreds of thousands workers with at least some training, should have begun weeks or even months ago. Instead, there is no sign that the Trump administration or Congress, including the Democrats, has made any such preparations or are even presently considering it. In the absence of a comprehensive federal program, already cash-strapped states will have to create the best TTI program they can with the limited resources they have but any holes in coverage will simply result in another round of infections and deaths. Coverage deficiencies will again predominantly effect poorer communities and states. In addition, any differences in coverage between states will simply force the states doing a good job to restrict travel from states not doing as well. We are already seeing governors try to put in place regional solutions in the absence of federal leadership.

If that weren’t bad enough, it appears that we are not only unable to ramp up testing but that the tests themselves are unreliable. Because of a shortage of testing equipment and enormous backups in diagnostic labs, the US has primarily tested only those who are displaying symptoms. South Korea, for example, has tested thousands more people per million than the US. It is expected that it will take months for US testing to ramp up to a level that is needed for the TTI program we will need. Worse, studies show that the tests themselves are massively unreliable. Around 30% of the tests show false negatives and are hardly effective if results can only be obtained days or weeks later. Other patients clearly show symptoms but still test negative.

It also is looking more likely that there may be little or no immunity once a patient contracts and survives the disease. Early studies show that recovered patients are showing remarkably low levels of antibodies that would provide protection from reinfection. In South Korea, there are now nearly 100 cases of patients who had thought to have recovered from the virus but are now testing positive again. It is unclear whether the patients had become reinfected or whether the virus had simply gone dormant for a short time and then reactivated. Either way, it seems that patients who have “recovered” from the virus may still become a nexus for transmission.

What we confront in the near future is inadequate and unreliable testing, a contact tracing program that will also be inadequate and insufficient, and isolation requirements that may run up against constitutional rights, even as the peak of deaths and infections begins to wane. Under such conditions, it would be lunacy to think we could safely return to anything like normal. To do so would mean sacrificing thousands of more Americans to almost certain death simply because of their own economic desperation or the political desperation of the powers that be. Under such conditions, does anyone think that restaurants and bars should open again; that large gatherings should be allowed; that we should force workers back on to crowded trains, buses, and subways; that schools should reopen.

The pandemic has revealed the hypocrisy of our capital-focused economy. It is the labor of those paid the least that is considered essential today and keeps us all alive. It is the undocumented farmworkers who are now considered essential by the government yet still face deportation; it is the grocery store workers who can never get regular shifts and barely make a living wage; it is the poultry workers who wear diapers because they are denied bathroom breaks; it is the warehouse workers who are literally being worked to death.

While deemed “essential’, most are treated otherwise. Many of these workers are already doing their jobs without proper protection and some employers are actually forcing workers not to use protection if they have it. Other firms are forcing employees to sign liability waivers exempting the company from being sued if the employee gets sick or dies. Employers are now hiding the fact that workers have been infected and Trump’s OSHA is actually thinking about codifying both those practices. As one Walmart worker truthfully put it, “We’re not essential. We’re sacrificial. I will be replaced if I die from this”. That choice between a paycheck and uncertain death is the choice that millions of Americans will face in the coming months. And it will be a choice that Trump, Republicans, and the shareholder class will be demanding they make.

Trump is apparently considering firing Anthony Fauci not only because Fauci admitted that a more prompt and effective response would have saved lives but also because Fauci has finally told the American people the truth about the future when he recently stated that “I would hope that by November we would have things under such control that we could have a real degree of normality”. And that is just his hope, which probably relies on many more weeks of isolation and social distancing and then an encompassing and effective TTI program going forward.

Fauci may actually be overly optimistic. Even if he is correct, what kind of society can we expect to come back to even after that few months’ time. Unemployment may hit 30%, according to one Federal Reserve Governor and is already estimated to be around 20%. The actual unemployment number will probably be severely understated as there will be millions who aren’t even considering getting a job while the chances of catching the virus is high and will therefore not be included in the unemployment figures. Without extensions, many of those fired over the last few weeks will have seen their unemployment eligibility expire by the end of the year.

Even for those willing or forced to risk their lives for work, there won’t be many jobs out there. Millions of local and small businesses will never reopen, even if they can get the forgivable loans available from the government. The retail sector was already collapsing even before this crisis hit. Gig workers, blocked from receiving unemployment benefits by Trump’s Department of Labor, will not be surviving on the pathetic $1,200 they receive. In addition, we will be in the midst of a significant recession, not just here in the US but across the world, that may rival what we saw in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Of course, because of our lack of a national healthcare system, millions of those unemployed workers will also have lost their health care. That means that all testing must be free and not create additional ancillary costs if we are to truly contain the virus. In addition to health insecurity, millions of Americans will also be facing food insecurity. Already, we see thousands lined up for food banks on a daily basis.

The food supply chain is disrupted. Even as food banks struggle to get enough food for the masses they will have to feed, farmers are literally destroying their products for lack of markets, primarily commercial. Some farms have already given up harvesting their spring crop for lack of demand. Dairy farmers are dumping their milk. With restaurants closed, the demand for seafood has plummeted, with some fisherman and seafood processors seeing an 85% drop in revenues. Meat processing plants are becoming infected and are being forced to close, with the CEO of one of the major processing firms warning that we are “perilously close” to a meat shortage. Farmers are also worried about the migrant farm workers that they rely on to harvest crops. The pandemic, combined with Trump’s border closure and an absurd administration idea to cut farm workers’ pay, may mean that crops will once again not be able to be harvested again this year simply for a lack of people to do the job.

The global supply chain has been similarly disrupted. Backups at ports of entry are creating enormous bottlenecks because lockdown procedures have slowed the ability to clear the products. In some countries, a simple lack of workers is adding to the delays. As countries start restricting exports of certain products, shortages are expected to increase. Experts are predicting the disruption to global supply chains will not even peak until around three month from now. An earlier shortage of containers driven by China’s shutdown has eased somewhat but still persists.

In the midst of all this chaos, state and local governments will be under enormous budgetary pressure. Declining tax revenue and massively increased costs associated with sky-high unemployment puts them in an untenable situation. We are already seeing states and cities starting to slash services. At the same time, hospitals are also hemorrhaging money and starting to lay off health care workers not needed to fight COVID-19. Independent primary care physicians are also facing economic ruin as revenues crater, with health insurers paying up to 50% less for telemedicine compared to office visits. Incredibly, even those medical workers on the front lines of the pandemic are seeing their hours and pay cut, as medical staffing companies lose revenue from the cancellation of other routine procedures.

Later this year and well into next, we will see an enormous wave of bankruptcies. According to a recent study, we could see over one million bankruptcies over the next 12 months, with one analyst saying, “Whether it’s corporate bankruptcies or personal, this is unprecedented. We will break the record in dollar amounts because there are much greater amounts of debt outstanding now than in any prior downturn”. We will see another surge in medical bankruptcies as well from people who have lost their health insurance.

There will be no return to normal anytime soon. Fauci talks about November. Others estimate it will be a year or more. This is the future we are facing and the fact of the matter is our leaders have barely begun to confront this reality and, more importantly, prepare the American people for it. Trump, in his desperate attempt to get re-elected and avoid going to jail, will continue to spout his fantasy of a quick return to normal. Because of that, federal leadership, which is actually required to successfully control the virus, will be lacking. Congress, which might be capable of overcoming the President’s lack of leadership, has also abdicated its own responsibilities, adjourning for a month after passing what everyone acknowledged was an inadequate relief bill, even as thousands of Americans are dying. Perhaps the most Marie Antoinette moment was a notice to House members from House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer that read “Members are advised that absent an emergency, the House is not expected to meet prior to Monday, May 4, 2020”.

We are facing another Great Depression. Thanks to the New Deal and the Great Society we now have some reasonably effective automatic stabilizers in place. But with an absence of leadership at the federal level, the pain and suffering and, yes, even death will be greater than it should be. That leadership vacuum will not be filled until January, 2021.

Originally published at https://thesoundings.com on April 15, 2020.

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