As unemployment (officially reported) soars toward 30% or more, an estimated 20 million more people will fall helplessly below the poverty line. In addition to their jobs, millions will lose everything they had spent their lives working for: homes, pensions, medical coverage, and savings accounts.
As we head into the fifth month of the COVID-19 outbreak, millions of working families feel like they have been kidnapped and sent to hell.
Most of us have already lived through a brutal preview of economic collapse: the 2008-09 “Great Recession.” In a span of 18 months, a majority of Black and Latino families lost all their net wealth and college grads from non-privileged backgrounds found themselves marooned, seemingly for life, in the low-wage service economy.
But the threat ahead is mass immiseration and hunger on a scale unseen since 1933. People desperately need to go back to work and save what they can of their lives. But heeding the siren call of the MAGA demonstrators, puppets on strings manipulated by hedge funds and billionaire casino owners, to “reopen the economy” would only result in tragedy.
And here is why it would be disastrous.
Sending millions of people back to work without protection or testing would be a death sentence for thousands. Thirty-four million workers are over 55 and 10 million of them over 65. Millions more suffer from diabetes, chronic respiratory problems, and so on. People will go straight from home, to work, to ICU, and to the morgue.
Millions of our “essential workers” face intolerable hazards because of the shortage of protective equipment. It will be weeks, at best, before there will be an adequate supply for medical workers.
Workers in warehouses, markets, and fast food have no guarantee of ever receiving masks, unless legislation compels it. If this is a war, Trump’s refusal to use existing laws to federalize the manufacture of masks and ventilators is a “war crime.”
The proposal to test people’s blood and then issue back-to-work certificates if they have the right antibodies, is mere fantasy at the moment. Washington has allowed more than a hundred different firms to sell serological kits without human trials, or FDA certification. The results they give are all over the map.
It may be weeks before public health workers have reliable diagnostics to use. Even then it would take months to test the workforce and it’s doubtful that enough people would have the antibodies to safely staff all the closed businesses.
The most heroic assumption is that a vaccine could be available by spring 2021. Meanwhile, hundreds of research teams and smaller biotech firms are working on medicines that will reduce the risk of respiratory failure and serious heart or kidney damage.
In a sense, we are living in an indefinite lock-out, facing an administration that sets a higher priority on destroying the Postal Service than it does on organizing a crash program to produce the tests, safety equipment, and antivirals that will allow the U.S. to return to work.
Trump’s accomplices are monsters like Amazon, which in two weeks made Jeff Bezos $25 billion richer, and UnitedHealth Group, the world’s largest health insurance company, whose profits increased by $4.1 billion in the first three months of the pandemic. Medical insurers have experienced a windfall since most of their enrollees are now unable to book operations or obtain vital treatments.
A volcanic rage is rapidly rising to the surface in this country and we need to harness it to defend and build unions, ensure Medicare for All, and knock the bastards off their gilded thrones.
Mike Davis is the author of “City of Quartz, Planet of Slums, Ecology of Fear, and The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu.” Parts of this commentary originally appeared in www.labornotes.org.