3 Things the Government Must Do to Avoid Economic and Social Collapse

Image result for coronavirus closed sign

Americans don’t expect much from their government. But even by the standards of a nation with one of the flimsiest social safety nets in the Western world, the inability and unwillingness of both major political parties to manage and solve the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic is shocking.

President Trump’s lack of leadership is well documented elsewhere so I won’t go into detail here. Democrats aren’t blameless; the DNC-engineered pre-Super Tuesday soft coup against Bernie Sanders replaced a frontrunner whose prescient ideas were tailormade for this crisis with a babbling dolt without an original thought in his foggy brain.

Congress is squabbling over an economic stimulus package as if they had all the time in the world. My favorite part was Mitch McConnell letting the Senate take the weekend off. Hey, Japan, not cool about Pearl Harbor but we’ll get back to you about declaring war in a week or whatever. Meanwhile, experts predict that unemployment could go as high as 30%, significantly worse than the depth of the Great Depression.

But now is not the time to cast blame. The ship is sinking. We can make the captain walk the plank later. Right now we have to fix the problem.

First, we have to save lives.

Trump says he doesn’t want to “nationalize” American companies. Actually, no one’s suggesting that. But they should. This is still a spectacularly wealthy nation with incredible resources and brilliant entrepreneurs. Shortages of face masks, testing kits, ventilators, rubbing alcohol and so on are inexcusable. The federal government must immediately requisition factories, hire workers directly and place manufacturing of needed supplies on an emergency war footing. If a company is already set up to make something we need yet refuses to do so, it should be nationalized and put to work for the American people.

In the fight against COVID-19, the biggest danger to the privileged is the poor health of the underprivileged. You can hunker down in the Hamptons but your newly-purchased freezer full of hoarded steaks won’t protect you from infection as long as others are too vulnerable to protect themselves. Some of the 17 million vacant homes in the United States should be immediately seized to house America’s half a million homeless and other vulnerable populations. The vast majority of prisoners, many of whom are awaiting trial, convicted of minor offenses or convicted of serious crimes but safe to release, should be immediately released from facilities whose conditions create cesspools of contagion.

Healthcare must be free. Hospitals and doctors should send their bills to the government. That debate, along with the canard that we have the best healthcare system in the world, is obviously over.

Second, we have to save the economy.

I’m not normally one to agree with Thomas Friedman, but he’s right when he points out that economic collapse will kill people on a scale on par with COVID-19: “Either we let many of us get the coronavirus, recover and get back to work—while doing our utmost to protect those most vulnerable to being killed by it. Or, we shut down for months to try to save everyone everywhere from this virus—no matter their risk profile — and kill many people by other means, kill our economy and maybe kill our future.”

I don’t think we really need to “let” many of us get the coronavirus. That has already happened.

News coverage that emphasizes test results is an idiotic distraction. Roughly 1/10 of 1% of American citizens have been tested. We know nothing about the COVID-19 status of 99.9% of the population. We don’t call elections based on 0.1% of the poll results and we can’t draw real conclusions from the testing so far.

However, there is reason to believe that many, many people have already had it.

Roughly one out of five people who get the coronavirus will never know it because they are asymptomatic. COVID-19 was first identified in early December in Wuhan, China. Although the median incubation period is 5 days, it can be as long as 11 days. That means we are talking about a pandemic that dates back to late November 2019.

When did it arrive in the United States? Probably in a day or two, the amount of time it took for one asymptomatic and/or incubating carrier—people like this account for about 10% of new infections—to board a plane and fly across the Pacific Ocean. Roughly 10,000 people a day flew from China to the United States at that time.

This is not a new thing—and you should feel good about that.

Let me explain.

The number of new cases in the U.S. has been doubling about every three days. Get a calculator and start multiplying by two: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024. That’s 10 three-day periods, aka the month of December. Keep going. By the end of January you’re at over a million. By February, a billion. The U.S. population is about 330 million. So when New York governor Andrew Cuomo says that 40 to 60% of the population is going to get the coronavirus, he’s being conservative.

The rate of transmission will stop increasing exponentially at some point. Some patients will die. The virus will run out of new Americans to infect. But mostly, we are going to recover and emerge with full or partial immunity to COVID-19. Many, many Americans have already had coronavirus, recovered, and are now fine.

Must they stay at home too? Maybe not. The U.S. government must pull out all the stops to test everyone, not just for current infection, but for past infection. A team at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York has developed a promising test for acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) that lets you know if you’ve ever had it. We don’t know if it’s possible to be reinfected by coronavirus or, if so, whether a second bout would be equally or less severe. But there are promising signs that the human immune response can tackle COVID-19.

If COVID-19 patients can emerge with total or near total immunity to the strain, they can help people who are sick. There’s no risk of them transmitting the infection or of contracting it. They are the key to restarting our economy. We can’t waste a moment finding those people and getting them back to work.

Third, we have to save people’s individual economies.

As we saw after the 2008-09 Great Recession, there’s not much point saving banks or corporations or the stock market without targeting individual American citizens for direct relief. Bernie Sanders has proposed that the United States Treasury pay out $2000 per person per month until the end of the coronavirus crisis. Sounds right.

Republicans want an absurd regressive form of means testing—the poorer are you are, the less you would receive. Saying they don’t want to subsidize millionaires, Democrats like Nancy Pelosi also want means testing but from the other direction.

Both are ridiculous. There’s no time for detailed analysis or a new government bureaucracy to determine who gets what. Checks and wire transfers need to go out yesterday. So what if Bill Gates gets one?

It’s time to act, not to blame. But if there’s no action or if the action is late and/or insufficient, there will be plenty of blame to go around. And there will be no limit to the rage of the survivors who are suffering against politicians who did not do what was needed to be done.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of the biography “Bernie.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)


  • ”There’s no time for detailed analysis or a new government bureaucracy to determine who gets what. Checks and wire transfers need to go out yesterday. So what if Bill Gates gets one?”
    All the tools are already available at the IRS (But not tailored for such purpose). Checks could easily be sent for, not a fixed amount, but a percentage of one’s net 2018 revenue up to a maximum of X.
    People not on file at the IRS are of course bad citizens that shouldn’t be helped (ha ha!).

  • Ted’s scenario that the corona virus pandemic outside of China started earlier than January and hence already is prevalent among the population at large. As Ted himself points out, for this to be true its true mortality would necessarily be really low, far lower than calculated for Hubei province. Deaths should peak soon if they haven’t already. It seems too good to be true (in part because deaths haven’t actually peaked in Europe or the US).

    Another reason why I am unfortunately skeptical of such a scenario is that neighboring countries like Taiwan and South Korea have meticulously documented their early cases beginning in January and managed to trace each one to a connection to Wuhan. Later cases could be traced to contact with one of their already documented cases. Had there been a rush of earlier infections in December, there should have been plenty of cases that could not be traced to Wuhan at all all along.

    I guess it is always possible to get really lucky and the virus may turn out to be significantly less dangerous than initial calculations indicated. However, watching Northern Italy hit hard makes such a version less plausible by the day.

    In public health, we may hope for the best but really need to plan at least for the most probable models given current data – if not for even worse scenarios that are likewise possible. Therefore I feel that right now it is somewhat reckless to speculate about much lower actual mortality rates.

    The reason I am a bit touchy about this topic is presumably that I am currently based in Sweden. The Swedish government’s response to the pandemic is unique in that Sweden effectively leaves it to individuals to take precautions (i.e. ski resorts remain open as the death toll mounts). Meanwhile, Germany is enforcing a ban of gatherings of more than 2(!) people.

    Either the Swedish officials follow a similar logic and are indeed assuming Covid-19 to be “mild” like the seasonal flu (which isn’t actually all that mild) or, rather, Swedish culture has finally managed to attain a degree of conflict-avoidance that has made them lose the very ability to plan ahead itself. It is surreal to watch, dear Monsieur Henri will back me up on this. Stay safe.

    • Covid19 might have fewer fatalities on a percentage basis of the infected that die.

      And Covid19 might have many fatalities because of it being less deadly but highly contagious.

      Other infections might have many fatalities while being more deadly but less contagious.

      A small percent of a large number can be equal to a large percent of a small number.

      If Covid19 kills only 1% of the infected and it infects 300 million, that’s only 3 million dead.

      If it kills 3% of the infected and it infects only 100 million, that’s only 3 million dead too.

      Without a test to confirm the infected and the previously infected that can’t be known.

      But if it kills 3% of 300 million, that’s 9 million dead.

      To paraphrase Dirty Harry, “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do you feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?”

    • Since you ask, Andreas, my impression is that by and large the relevant Swedish authorities are dealing with this crisis in a measured and responsible way ; we shall have to see whether at the end of the day, the measures they have taken will prove to have been fit for purpose as compared with, e g, the far more restrictive ones adopted in Denmark and Norway. That said, there is one official agency – MSB or the so-called Civil Contingency Agency – which, to my mind, has been sadly lacking : given the two month respite the Chinese gave us, why it didn’t do something about the shocking lack of PPE in our health care institutions ? And then there is the fact that our public health care system, of which we (justifiably) were so proud has been underfunded for years, as politics here have moved ever further to the right (look at our school system !) and privatisation and NPM and «just-in-time» have been the viruses gnawing away at the foundations of our way of life. Perhaps those who so admire the USA will be forced in this crisis to take another look at their beloved role model….


  • Great column Ted.

  • Both are ridiculous. There’s no time for detailed analysis or a new government bureaucracy to determine who gets what. Checks and wire transfers need to go out yesterday. So what if Bill Gates gets one?

    Not to worry, Ted ; what Mr Gates – or rather someone working for him – would do were he to receive such cheques is to donate them to «charity» – the same sort of «charity» which, as Tim Schwab’s recent article in the Nation points out, does so much to benefit Mr Gates himself (Surprise ! Surprise !)….

    And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.


  • I’ll CONSIDER agreeing Thomas Friedman if and only if he identifies “economic austerity (neoliberalisms alter-ego) as an optimally effective weapon of mass destruction of human life and strenuously argues that IT has killed an already weakened economy (after Clinton’s destruction of the Glass-Seagal Act + legalization of “financial derivatives,” the blow of Bushie II’s “jobless recovery” and the “quantitative easing” of the bumbling bros: Obumma & ole Joe Feet-in-Mouth & Full Load in Depends) long before SARS-CoV-2 arrived on the scene.

  • alex_the_tired
    March 24, 2020 6:29 AM

    Ted makes (or maybe it’s that he doesn’t make it but it’s clearly in there between the lines) an interesting observation with this.

    The rich? Sending Bloomberg a check for $2,000 a month? Sending that fetid, oily pervert Mark Zuckerberg 20 benjamins a month? It means nothing to them. It’d be like you finding some theoretical coin valued at 1/10,000th of a penny. — Jesus, do I even want to bother depositing it?

    Send everyone a check right away. I know. I know, we’re giving the rich our taxes. We’ve been doing that for decades. If Bernie can win the nomination (and with fumbling Joe’s fiasco of a performance in that message he finally got out it’s looking like it’s posjust barely sible Sanders can still win this thing) we’ll get the money back in about a year.

    Keep washing your hands, everyone.

  • Technical question:
    Do we need to identify people that have survived the virus?
    If so, how? Badge? Tattoo? Microchip? Combination?

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