States of fear: a superpower reels as a virus spreads

States of fear: a superpower reels as a virus spreads

With the Covid-19 death toll close to 40,000 and rising, a looming threat of civil unrest, 22 million unemployed and large chunks of its population relying on food banks to survive, the US is in a battle to get its Covid-19 outbreak under control

19th April, 2020

Across the US, the coronavirus is making its presence felt in new and terrifying ways. From civil unrest to ever-escalating death tolls, from massive job losses to food banks unable to keep up with demand from desperate families.

In less than a month, a decade’s worth of job gains have been entirely obliterated. Close to 40,000 Americans are known to have died from Covid-19 and almost 700,000 have tested positive. But there is widespread acceptance that in the absence of standardised testing and counting of fatalities, the real numbers are almost certaijnly significantly higher.

While there are encouraging signs that New York has slowed the spread of the virus, Corey Gardner, its city council speaker, says that more than 200 Americans are dying at home each day, a ten-fold increase over the yearly average of around 20 deaths a day during April.

The scenes playing out across America are reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic horror film. It’s thus far unclear whether, as President Donald Trump would have it, the country is heading back to normality or it is teetering on the edge of the abyss. The threat of civil unrest, which has intensified in recent years, cannot be discounted. The coronavirus has become another catalyst in America’s culture wars. Sudden, widespread unemployment and a president who is willing to stoke the flames of anger and fear for his own ends make for a combustible mix. There is a sense of living in a country that’s holding its breath.

In Michigan last week, chilling footage emerged as thousands of protesters stormed the town of Lansing, where the state capitol building is located. Heavily armed white nationalist and militia members used trucks and cars to block traffic, including ambulances and first responders who were attempting to get to hospitals. More armed protesters converged on the capitol building steps. Dressed in military fatigues and Trump/MAGA merchandise, they brandished assault weapons and confederate flags as they jeered Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer, chanting: “Lock her up!”. According to Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democratic representative, some of the protesters displayed swastikas.

In Michigan, which is home to several white nationalist military groups, there is a perception that the coronavirus is an “immigrant virus”. The cities of Flint and Detroit, both of which have large black populations, have been disproportionately affected by the virus. Of the 2,000-plus Michigan residents who have died, more than 40 per cent are African Americans who account for around 14 per cent of the state’s overall population.

The protest, which doubled as a pro-Trump rally of sorts, was organised by the Michigan Conservative Coalition, a group that is supported by Erik Prince, the private security mogul and brother of the education secretary, Betsy DeVos. Similar scenes have played out in Ohio, Utah, Wyoming and North Carolina.

“They represent the insanity that has been let loose in our politics,” Steve Schmidt, a communications and public affairs strategist who has worked on Republican political campaigns, said during an interview with MSNBC. “We see the confederate flag-flying, the white nationalist slogans, the chants. This is whackjobbery mainstreamed into our politics. And it’s going to get worse.”

A senior Republican congressional official told the Business Post there was “great trepidation” about potential civil unrest. “We’re flying blind. There is no roadmap for this. We don’t know if this is the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end of this pandemic,” he said.

“We have no way of knowing if unemployment figures will pass 30 million and what impact that will have.”

On Thursday, the television doctor Dr Oz was widely criticised after he made comments suggesting that a “2 or 3 per cent mortality rate” – about nine million American lives – was a price worth paying to reopen schools.

Throughout the week, the drumbeat of conservative pundits and commentators calling for an end to the lockdown intensified. The view that this is a “blue state” problem, affecting densely populated coastal states and minority communities, has been widely touted by conservative news networks.

Harrowing discovery

Meanwhile, grim scenes continued to unfold. In Andover, New Jersey, the attorney general ordered a criminal investigation into practices at the Andover Rehabilitation and Sub Acute Care Home where police discovered 18 bodies that had been crammed into a morgue designed to hold five. The harrowing discovery was made after a local politician received an anonymous tip. The owner of the facility, which is home to 700 elderly patients, said the extra bodies were stored because of a “backlog of deaths” over the Easter weekend.

In South Dakota, 640 workers tested positive for Covid-19 at a meat processing plant where they continued to work “elbow to elbow” after Republican governor Kristi Noem refused to implement a lockdown or order social distancing practices. The pork processing plant, which is owned by a Chinese corporation, has now been closed down. While Noem continues to insist that “things are under control”, South Dakota, which has one of the poorest healthcare systems in the US, has emerged as America’s new hotspot for new cases.

In Texas, the economic impact is hitting low-income and undocumented workers. By Thursday evening, hundreds of cars had lined up outside a food bank in San Antonio that wouldn’t open for another 12 hours. In a single day last week, more than 10,000 families waited in their cars to receive essential food supplies: bread, milk, pasta and tinned foods.

Judith Zaffirini, who represents the border town of Laredo, said undocumented workers were being hit hardest.

People wait in their cars at Traders Village for the San Antonio Food Bank to begin food distribution. The need for emergency food aid has exploded in recent weeks due to the coronavirus crisis Picture: AP

“We’ve been pressuring [Texas governor] Greg Abbott to release millions of dollars in state aid,” she said. “We have tens of thousands of desperate people. The food banks are overwhelmed.”

Despite a bipartisan plea to Abbott, no state funds had been released at the time of writing. Eric Cooper, the director of the San Antonio food bank, said on Thursday night that he had received a surge in private donations after pictures showing thousands of families, some waiting for up to eight hours for food, were published around the US.

In Dallas, similar scenes played out with hundreds of families waiting outside a food bank overnight in the hope of receiving a food parcel with supplies that would typically last a family of four for three days.

The shuttering of the US economy has affected undocumented workers the most. They make up a substantial part of workforces that are undergoing mass layoffs – construction, hospitality, and food services industries. Even though most of them pay taxes, they are not entitled to claim unemployment benefits and they receive no sick pay. Undocumented workers also account for 14 per cent of agricultural workers.

“How many undocumented workers have lost their jobs? Honestly, we don’t know. But we know that we’re getting a lot of desperate people here who have no food stamps, no assistance and no way of feeding their families other than what we give them here,” said a volunteer with a food bank on San Pedro Street in Los Angeles. “There’s no safety net for them. If they don’t work, their families don’t eat.”

In addition, they are afraid to seek medical attention if they are ill. Many of them live in overcrowded labour camps with minimal washing or laundry facilities where workers sleep in dorms. “If the virus takes hold [in worker accommodation] it will spread like wildfire,” she said.

Dire situation

In Florida, the situation is equally dire. Because of its deliberately restrictive unemployment assistance policies, a backlog of 850,000 applications has accrued over the past four weeks. So far, only 33,623 unemployment cheques have been processed and paid.

On Thursday, Trump released his much-vaunted plan to reopen America. Despite the fanfare, it was little more than a PowerPoint wishlist with vague recommendations for a three-phase opening of businesses, schools and public places in states that satisfy general criteria relating to new infection rates, testing and hospital capacity.

However, the single biggest omission from the plan was the absence of a national testing strategy. The 18-page plan could have been condensed into an eight-word message: “Memo to governors: you’re on your own.”

People pick up bags of food at the 88th Street Temple Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles, a collection point for emergency food distribution Picture: Getty

Trump’s backdown is likely more strategic than as a result of a closer study of the US Constitution. If the buck stops with the states, rather than the White House, when it comes to reopening, he can blame the governors of states that are slow to open for the country’s economic implosion, while simultaneously ducking responsibility for states where the abandonment of stay-at-home restrictions leads to a deadly spike in new cases.

Trump’s own businesses have been hit hard by the crisis. Last week, the Trump Doral golf resort in Miami laid off 560 workers, including valets, housekeepers and restaurant and bar workers. The Trump Organiation, which is currently managed by his sons Donald Trump jr and Eric Trump, has laid off more than 2,000 workers from its hotels and golf clubs in Washington DC, Hawaii, Las Vegas and Chicago.

Analysts claim that Trump’s estimated worth of $3 billion may have already dropped by $1 billion. It’s unclear whether the Trump Organization will be one of the beneficiaries of the $500 billion that has been allocated for “no strings attached” loans to the corporate sector.

A new poll from the Pew Research centre published on Thursday evening found that two-thirds of Americans believe Trump responded to the crisis too slowly, while almost three-quarters believe, despite Trump’s assurances to the contrary, that the worst is yet to come. A further two-thirds expressed concern that restrictions would be lifted too quickly.

Aside from the obvious concerns about Trump’s dwindling approval ratings, Republicans believe these polls reveal another underlying cause of concern: that Americans don’t trust him. Nor do they find his daily briefings credible.

“That’s your problem right there,” a senior Republican said. “If they don’t believe it’s safe, they’ll stay home. That’s what’s going to kill the recovery.”

Hundreds of claimants line up outside a state office in Hialeah, Florida last week to apply for unemployment benefits. They are administered at state level and some states are ill-equipped to cope with the influx Picture: Shutterstock

It‘s always been the economy, stupid

With more than 22 million Americans seeking unemployment assistance, and predictions that the US is facing its worst recession since the 1930s, Donald Trump is understandably anxious to get the US economy up and running ahead of the November 3 election.

The economy and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic are the two yardsticks by which his performance will be measured in November.

On Thursday, Trump backed down from earlier claims that he had “total authority” to order states to end their lockdowns. It is an irony that has not escaped Republicans that Trump’s fortunes depend largely on the decisions of mostly Democratic governors on when and how to reopen their states.

He is keenly aware that, in order to repeat his upset victory of 2016, he has to hold on to the states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which provided him with the narrowest of paths to victory. Trump, who lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by three million votes, won Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania by a total of just 72,000 votes, providing him with the electoral college victory.

But these are among the states that have been hardest hit by America’s economic paralysis. In Michigan, the unemployment rate has soared to 22 per cent. In Pennsylvania, the figure is 20 per cent while in Wisconsin, 18 per cent of the workforce has applied for economic assistance. The implications for Trump’s chances of re-election are enormous.

Trump claims that “20 or 29 [sic]” states are ready to reopen their economies. The problem, however, is that the states that are willing to reopen for business don’t have a whole lot of businesses to reopen.

The “wide open” Republican-controlled states of Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho, West Virginia and Alaska between them contribute less than $300 billion to the US GDP. They receive significantly more from the federal purse than they contribute.

California, which is controlled by Democrats, is the world’s fifth biggest economy with a GDP of close to $3 trillion.

Putting this in perspective, Wyoming’s GDP accounts for barely 1 per cent of California’s at around $33 billion. It’s of little consequence whether Wyoming reopens in 2020 or 2030. But it’s of enormous consequence whether California re-opens in June or September. Between them, California and New York, the US’s financial nerve centre, are the twin engines that drive the American economy.

According to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis, of the top 10 economic powerhouse states, two are “red states”, five are “blue states” and three – Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio – are swing states. In a nutshell, it is overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning states, with Democratic governors, that drive the US economy.

Already they have made it abundantly clear they won’t be bounced into reopening unless there is a comprehensive system of testing, contact tracing and quarantining available. If Trump wants to kickstart the US economy, he needs to focus first on delivering a comprehensive federal testing programme.

Bodies are moved to a refrigerator truck serving as a morgue outside a hospital in Brooklyn, New York where officials have called for more testing Getty

Lack of tests leads to disaster

Despite the criticisms that have been levelled at the White House, there have been some positive aspects to the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic. The bipartisan $2.2 trillion legislation was signed and significant parts have already been implemented. More than 90 per cent of Americans have stayed at home. States like California have slowed the spread of the virus. And the federal government, after a fumbled start, provided states with essential medical supplies and ventilators.

But the one unmitigated disaster has been testing – or the lack of it. At time of writing, barely 1 per cent of Americans had been tested for the virus. Despite the fanfare around Donald Trump’s three-phase plan to reopen the country, there is no national testing plan, a step that medical, scientific and even business and finance leaders say is an essential prerequisite to getting America back to work.

Health and Human Services (HHS) and Centres for Disease Control (CDC) spokespersons who hosted media conference calls for journalists were vague about what the federal role would be. One said that the federal government “will try to facilitate access to tests”, but declined to elaborate on exactly what “facilitate” meant.

She couldn’t say whether Trump would provide funding, either to scale up testing to what leading epidemiologists have said would be a minimum requirement of 35 million tests, or to fund the estimated 100,000 workers who would be required to mount a comprehensive contact tracing programme that would enable them to track and test those who had been exposed to the virus. Further muddying the picture, a Health and Human Services spokesman said that “individual states and localities” would be responsible for their own testing programmes, suggesting they, not the federal government, would foot the bill.

Corey Johnson, the New York City council speaker, could hardly contain his frustration. “We have an $8 billion deficit,” he told the Business Post. “Having forced the states and cities to bid against each other for ventilators and essential equipment, they’re going to do the same for testing, instead of the federal government procuring and distributing the tests.”

The chaos over testing has been one of the most consistently confounding aspects of Trump’s response. In March, he promised that any American who wanted a test would be able to get one. Shortly afterwards, in response to criticism about the shortage of tests, he indicated the federal government would distribute four million tests by the end of the week.

In February, he had turned down an offer of 1.4 million tests from the WHO, claiming the CDC was developing its own testing kits and protocols. However, these proved to be flawed, further delaying the testing process. Meanwhile, another test that Trump promised would deliver results in 15 minutes was quietly dropped after it too turned out to be a flawed test.

Initially, Trump claimed he had entered an agreement with major retailers like Walmart and Target to have hundreds of Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) operated drive-through test sites in their car parks. However, six weeks later, only five such sites existed nationwide. Trump then reneged on the pledge, saying it was not the job of the federal government “to stand in car parks carrying out tests”’

Even now, there is no agreement as to who should be prioritised for testing. Dr Deborah Birx indicated that one million tests a week would be carried out. However, Zeke Emanuel, a health and pandemic adviser to the Obama administration, says a minimum of five to seven million tests a week are urgently needed just to protect frontline workers, first responders, police and grocery store workers. Medical experts agree that a minimum of 10 per cent of the population would have to be tested to get a clear idea of the degree to which the virus has penetrated America. However, on Birx’s schedule, that wouldn’t happen until late November.

“We can’t do this without the federal government’s help,” New York governor Andrew Cuomo said in response to questions about testing in New York. “The states can’t handle this on our own. We don’t have the capability or the supplies. This is a quagmire.”

Share this post

Related Stories

No legal basis for employers to process workers’ vaccine status, DPC rules

State’s Covid restrictions were more lax than public wanted, ESRI says

Analysis: Moral hazard at the heart of public health leaders’ reluctance to begin use of rapid antigen testing

Covid-19: Delta raises the stakes as vaccine rollout becomes a race against time