By Carlton Joseph
In the United States last month, the unemployment rate registered a record 14.7 per cent, dropping by a historic 20.5 million jobs as the coronavirus pandemic hit the economy, wiping out a decade of gains in a single month. Meanwhile , the stock market has been experiencing significant gains.
There are two main reasons for this market surge. First, people under lockdown because of the virus, are spending more money playing the stock market . Second, the CARES Act, which gave major companies access to 4 trillion dollars, has signaled to Wall Street that no matter what happens, the US government and the Federal Reserve have their backs. The one per cent is now all in, with interest rates near zero and the 10-year Treasury note at 0.69 per cent, stocks are the best gamble in the house. They control the house and the house always wins.
While the stock market rebounds, the worldwide death toll from COVID-19 continues to rise, with over 280,000 known deaths and over 4.1 million confirmed cases. The US, despite all the money spent on healthcare, has about four per cent of the world’s population but account for more than 25 per cent of the deaths worldwide -about 80,000.
Doctors and health experts continue to stress that testing and contact tracing are essential for reopening the economy but the Trump administration refuses to use the Defense Production Act (DPA) to produce Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and test kits. Yet, the Trump administration and some states want to reopen the economy, and have been encouraging supporters to protest against the “Stay at Home” orders.
As a result, except where some states have decided to work with other neighboring states, one can drive from one state to another with completely different policies being implemented. Capitalists are thriving because states are competing against each other to get masks, PPEs, medicines, healthcare workers, ambulances, funeral homes and burial plots. America is competing against itself rather than with the rest of the world. I am reminded of the Mighty Sparrow’s calypso, Capitalism gone mad.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported that in January last, Mike Bowen, owner of the largest surgical face mask producer in the US, Prestige Ameritech, contacted top officials in the Department of Health and Human Services and offered to produce the masks and his offer was rejected. Instead, the Trump administration embarked on “Project Air Bridge,” a partnership between large US healthcare distributors such as McKesson Corp, Cardinal, Owens & Minor, Medline and Henry Schein Inc. and the federal government.
This consortium purchased medical supplies from China. The first delivery included 130,000 N-95 masks, nearly 1.8 million surgical masks and gowns, more than 10.3 million gloves and more than 70,000 thermometers. The 130,000 masks are unnecessary since Prestige Ameritech had offered to produce1.7 million N95 masks every week and would be capable of supplying the needs of the United States and other countries in the distant future. Unfortunately, the US has opted to be a consumer rather than the producer of these essential products.
Desperate for some solution to combat the virus, Trump said at a recent briefing, “I see the disinfectant that knocks it out in a minute, one minute, and is there a way we can do something like that by injection …it would be interesting to check that.”
Later in the briefing, Trump turned to Dr. Deborah Birx, Coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and asked if she had any knowledge of heat or light being used as a potential treatment for COVID-19. Is this really the leader of the US and the “free” world?
Trump’s attempt at practicing medicine elicited much criticism from many in the medical profession but that did not stop people from calling the Centers for Disease Control about exposure to cleaners and disinfectants. One professor remarked that “people will do extraordinary things if you give them the idea.” Chaos reigned supreme, as social media were flooded with warnings from doctors that people shoud not to attempt self-medication amid the pandemic.
The impact of the coronavirus is ripping through farm country. Corn, cotton and soybean futures have tumbled, ethanol plants have been idled, some fruit and vegetable farmers are plowing over produce in the field, and dairy farmers are dumping milk. Meat-processing plant closures are threatening the supply of meat on the market, and because the pork industry is based on a just-in-time inventory system, hogs are backing up on farms with nowhere to go. In fact, farmers are in danger of having many more animals on their hands than they can afford to feed or house.
But while farmers are dumping milk and plowing over crops, there is great demand for their produce. Thousands of unemployed, hungry people line up in cars everyday to get food supplies from Food Banks across the United States. Since food banks rely on volunteers and donations, they are also impacted by the pandemic. And as volunteers become impacted, they are unable to provide their labor, and Feeding America reports that donations have decreased by 64 per cent. Laissez Faire capitalism has failed to deliver life saving goods, even when it’s readily and abundantly available.
At the White House, the President’s valet, the Vice President’s press secretary, and some secret service personnel tested positive for the virus, forcing the President to order White House staff to test daily and wear facemasks.
Instead of acknowledging the need for testing and contact tracing and declaring PPE as “critical infrastructure,” in order to protect the lives of workers, Trump used the DPA to issue an executive order declaring the meat supply “critical infrastructure.” The DPA order allows plants to override safety regulations, and shield the companies from the possibility of being held civilly liable for safety failures that lead to workers becoming infected, and those infections spreading through the wider community.
The old normal cannot be the new normal. Politicians cannot run for office with the goal of destroying government. In fact government is not the problem. The years of attacking government, squeezing it dry and draining its morale, defunding critical programs, depleting stockpiles, dismantling regulations, layoffs of essential personnel, destruction of labor laws and total disregard for the environment have inflicted a heavy cost that the public is paying in lives during this pandemic.
Americans, must now reassess government’s role – What do the people of this republic owe their government? And what does government owe its people? Republican Mitch McConnell openly declared that Corporations are more important than people, when he said that Republicans are unwilling to bail out state pensions and that states should declare bankruptcy.
We, the people, cannot allow this to happen because bankruptcy would potentially eliminate any financial obligations to public employees, as well as force layoffs.The result will be persistent, long term unemployment for millions of people. We cannot continue to destroy the earth and the lives of ordinary people and accept it as normal.
(Trinidad-born Carlton Joseph who lives in Washington DC, is a close observer of political developments in the United States.)