We’re Now Facing Both a Public Health and a Poverty Catastrophe

We’re Now Facing Both a Public Health and a Poverty Catastrophe

We’re Now Facing Both a Public Health and a Poverty Catastrophe

Trump’s malevolent mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis has been compounded by ineptitude at the state level.


The past few weeks, it’s become a commonplace to refer to the “dark winter” that this Covid-bedeviled country is about to experience. That is, if anything, an understatement.

First, there’s the catastrophic public health situation, presided over by a zombie Trump administration—its leader concerned only with trying to undermine the results of an election that he resoundingly lost—that can’t even make the pretense of caring about the alarming daily death toll. The country is now suffering roughly the same number of deaths as a 9/11 attack every single day, and those numbers could soon rise far beyond even that horrible level. Daily, hospitalization rates are increasing; more than 100,000 Covid-suffering Americans are currently in hospitals. And daily, in consequence, more and more hospital systems are reaching the breaking point. By the beginning of April, according to CDC estimates, 539,000 Americans will likely have died of Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic. Even that number might end up being too low, given current infection trajectories, and given the fact that Trump still has six weeks in office to wreak as much havoc as possible.

The public health catastrophe that this cruel and inept administration has inflicted on the country is, however, not the only unfolding disaster. For it is now being magnified by a cascading poverty crisis as well. This isn’t a crisis of the markets—in fact, the stock market, buoyed by the prospect of widespread vaccine distribution over the coming months, is in record territory. Instead, it is a crisis disproportionately borne by lower-income Americans who live paycheck to paycheck, and for whom the months between now and the vaccine’s mass distribution represent an eternity. In particular, in a state such as California, with its high percentage of noncitizen residents, it is borne by noncitizen immigrants, who have been excluded from Covid-related congressional relief packages and who have run through the temporary state packages aimed at plugging this gap. And even more so, it is carried by the undocumented, who have never qualified for welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, or other government benefits, and who have no protections when the businesses they work for, such as restaurants, are forced to shut down. Absent federal action, these groups within the broader population are facing a catastrophe that could well prove even longer-lasting than the immediate medical crisis.

Already, after nine months of Covid-related economic restrictions and job market contractions, those at the bottom of America’s economic pyramid are suffering increased hunger, diminished job prospects, less reliable access to health care—accelerating a trend that has been gathering pace throughout the Trump presidency—and a growing vulnerability to homelessness.

Meanwhile, as has been pointed out many times in recent months, Jeff Bezos has added $74 billion in wealth to his portfolio this year—enough to rescue every troubled public transport system in the country, while leaving over tens of billions of dollars that could be distributed to those beggared by the public health calamity.

Without a credible federal strategy to mitigate the spread of the disease—and absent congressional action to fund social programs or raise taxes on the wealthy to provide economic relief—states are having to improvise as the fall surge picks up steam. And they are doing so in ways that risk destroying the already precarious livelihoods of poor residents. That economic tsunami is this week’s Signal.

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom—who sacrificed much of his credibility on pandemic response last month by going to a lobbyist’s soiree at the fancy and expensive French Laundry restaurant even as he urged Californians not to go out to eat—suddenly announced last week that the state would be divided into five large regions. If the spare ICU-bed capacity in a region falls below 15 percent, according to this new plan, then within two days the entire region will have to go into lockdown, a sort of shelter-in-place-lite, for a minimum of three weeks. As a result, most of California is already in lockdown.

Some of the measures, such as the shuttering of bars, are unpleasant but hard to argue against from a public health perspective. But others seem arbitrary, to say the least, smacking more of panic than carefully thought-through public policy. Why, for example, should a restaurateur who has spent tens of thousands of dollars retrofitting his or her establishment to meet previous safety mandates for outdoor dining suddenly have to shut down because hundreds of miles away, but within the same large region, Covid rates are spiking? Why should a person who is masked and keeping to social-distancing protocols not even be allowed to sit outside, ten feet apart from a friend who doesn’t live in her household? California’s new diktats sound tough—they present an image of an in-charge governor—but in reality they are unlikely to significantly lower transmission rates, while being very likely to inflict irreparable economic and mental health damage the longer they continue.

Christmas is barely two weeks away. With the president AWOL and his coronavirus task force dysfunctional, with Congress bickering over whether to pass another relief package (and with congressional Republicans wedded to preserving tax cuts for the wealthy while bemoaning the deficit spending needed to sustain relief for the poor), many states are doing what they had to do back in March: shutting down again. But this time around, they are asking their low-income residents, their immigrant populations, and their small-business owners to take a massive economic hit, with precious little prospect of adequate federal relief to mitigate the hurt.

Governor Newsom is almost certainly gambling that Congress, and the fabled moderate middle in the Senate, will blink in the coming days and quickly pass enough of a comprehensive relief package to rescue the employees and small-business owners who will otherwise soon be rendered bankrupt. But if that’s the strategy, it’s a hell of a gamble. After all, there’s nothing in this Congress’s recent track record—or more specifically, in Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s track record—to suggest even a modicum of concern for those most in need. There’s nothing to suggest the urgency that would get relief checks out immediately to the many millions of Americans who stand to lose their paychecks during this second wave of state lockdowns. There’s nothing to suggest anything but the bleakest of Christmases for those in California and elsewhere who stand to lose their jobs.

This dark winter is off to a brutally early start. The feds are asleep at the wheel, and the states are desperately crafting ad hoc public health responses that cannot help but push more people into poverty and destitution. It’s got all the makings of a political and social disaster.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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