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In the last post, I talked about how the COVID-19 pandemic affected me personally -- which [thankfully] was not much. This time, I want to present some of my thoughts and opinions on the response to the pandemic from a policy and societal perspective, as well as what I perceive to be the lessons that we (as a society) should have learned.

Some of the most essential workers in our economy are the ones who are paid the least. Health care workers, delivery persons, postal workers, grocery clerks, warehouse workers, restaurant workers, and so forth were the people who had to keep going to work because our economy and lifestyles would grind to a complete halt without them. The median wages among employed individuals in the United States is around $49k per year. Yet according to Salary.com, the average salary for a professional truck driver is only around $42k. Contract or gig drivers (such as Amazon couriers) make far, far less.

Restaurant and grocery store workers also make far less than delivery drivers, often earning minimum wage (or less than minimum wage if you also make tips). Those who maybe kept their jobs, but were reliant on tips were especially hurt during the lockdowns, due to a lack of business and in-person contact.

Low-paid delivery persons and fast food workers were essential,
and had to keep working while the rest of us stayed home and safe.

And then there's the healthcare workers, who were literally putting their lives on the line every day, helping to take care of sick people and possibly exposing themselves to infection on a daily basis. Registered nurses (usually employed in hospitals) make decent pay, but the majority of support staff in private clinics are not necessarily registered nurses. This includes receptionists, phlebotomist, clerical staff, and other assistants. As of 2018, medical support staff earned an average of less than $40k per year!

Remember, these are the people who, during a pandemic, were considered "essential" workers who had to keep working (while everyone else stayed home) in order to keep a bare minimum economy running, and to allow the rest of us to continue to go about our daily lives. When shit hit the fan, we didn't look to lawyers, or corporate CEOs, or hedge fund managers, or brokers, or realtors, or movie stars, or athletes. Aside from doctors, we didn't need any of the traditionally highest-paid classes of workers. We needed truck drivers, postal workers, warehouse workers, grocery clerks, and food service workers, and of course medical staff. So I hope you remember this next time you hear someone say that these workers deserve higher pay, or that minimum wage should be increased.

The value of teachers

Our local school district may cancel its re-opening plan
in favor of recommending distance learning.

Even among businesses and organizations that were shut down out of necessity, we saw some low-paid essential workers continue to work in some fashion. In many places, teachers were expected to continue to provide tele-education to students since public schools were closed. Those schools were, after all, closed because putting that many people in an enclosed space was a public health concern; not because education is un-essential. So teachers were expected to keep working, and students were expected to keep doing homework. Yet public school teachers are another historically low-paid (yet very hard-working) class of worker.

At least in some places. Teacher salaries vary wildly by state in the United States. States like New York, California, and Massachusetts pay their public school teachers over $80k per year. On the other end of the spectrum, Mississippi and South Dakota pay less than $43k. Note, however, that those high-paying states also have very high costs of living, so if you adjust for that, the salaries are maybe not as nice as they seem.

I've lived with teachers my entire life. I've seen how hard they work and how difficult their jobs can be. And I've seen how hard it can be on them when their students are suffering or in trouble. They are not babysitters, and they often work through evenings, weekends, holidays, and the summer. In addition to making sure the kids don't kill each other, teachers provide those kids with the education and skills they need to function in society. They are also expected to provide counseling and mental health support, are on the front-lines in reporting child abuse and neglect, and in some sense they are expected to act in some law enforcement capacity.

For example, teachers are often the first to notice and report signs of abuse or neglect in their students. During the pandemic, Child Protective Services reported a dramatic decrease in calls to CPS. This might sound like a good thing, but police simultaneously responded to increases in reports of domestic abuse during the same period. The abuse and neglect is definitely still happening, but since kids aren't going to school, their teachers aren't noticing it or reporting it, and appropriate interventions are not happening.

In fact, child abuse (as well as partner abuse) is probably happening at far greater rates during the lockdown, since the victims have been trapped at home with their abusers for months. The victims are also stuck without safe outlets to escape or report the abuse. If schools remain closed in order to protect public health, and victimized students can't turn to teachers or school counselors for help, then the problems of abuse will only continue to escalate. This may be especially true for abusers who are under stress from having lost their jobs, and will be taking out their frustration on their children and/or partners.

So please, remember the value of schools and of teachers next time you hear a politician talking about cutting education budgets.

People lost health insurance because of a pandemic

Perhaps the lesson that is the most actionable for the United States is the lesson that we should have learned regarding access to health care and health insurance. In the United States, healthcare is exceptionally expensive, and health insurance is a practical necessity for care. However, a person's access to health insurance is typically tied to that person having full-time employment. The Affordable Care Act, passed during President Obama's first term, helped with this problem in the general case by offering publicly-available healthcare policies for individuals to buy into via an exchange.

What we saw in March, however, was state-enforced business closures that resulted in millions of people being furloughed or laid off. Which meant those workers lost their health insurance. People lost their health insurance as a direct result of the onset of a pandemic! They also lost their income, which negates the possibility of buying a policy from the exchanges. Could the situation possibly be any more counter-productive or messed up?!

When the pandemic started, businesses shut down, and furloughed workers lost health insurance.

So what is the lesson in this? Well, the lesson is that health care shouldn't be only available to people who have full-time employment. The problem will only get worse as gig economies and crowd-funding continue to proliferate. Now, personally, I'm a proponent of universal, publicly-funded healthcare. I support universal healthcare for many reasons which I don't want to go into now (for the sake of brevity). But even if you prefer a more market-oriented paradigm, I would hope that this pandemic has made it obvious that more healthcare options need to be accessible to people who do not receive health insurance from their employer. Further, a robust social safety net is still necessary to ensure that people who can't afford insurance (either because they don't work at all, recently lost a job, or don't earn enough) have assistance programs available to ensure that they can seek both emergency treatment and preventative care. More importantly, paying for somebody else's health care does provide a direct benefit to you because it decreases the chances of that person exposing you to an infectious disease.

This pandemic demonstrated just how little control the general public has over their employment (and therefore their income and access to health care). "Get a job!" is not an acceptable response when there are simply no jobs available.

A Timeline of Administrative Failures

Heck, even the Republican Trump administration was suggesting cash payments to the public (essentially a Universal Basic Income) before the front-runner Democratic nominee did. I'm not so sure that the point of the cash payments was so much to benefit the individuals receiving the checks, as it was more likely intended to stimulate the economy and keep businesses afloat. After all, many within the Republican establishment, including the lieutenant governor of Texas, suggested that people should "be happy to go out and die in order to save the economy and prevent socialism". That's right! Conservatives were talking like a death cult, telling people that they should sacrifice their lives on the altar of the free market.

Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick suggested that people should be willing to die to preserve the economy.

Perhaps if the federal executive administration had taken the risk of a pandemic more seriously, and hadn't been so characteristically petty regarding criticisms of its response (or lack thereof), we wouldn't have been put in this position of shutting down the economy to begin with. Indications that China was experiencing a pandemic were present since December. The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) started issuing warnings in January, and issued an emergency declaration on January 30. The White House completely ignored these warnings, then months later blamed the W.H.O. for not warning them (in a brazen attempt to deflect blame) and then had the nerve to cut U.S. funding to the organization in "retaliation".

South Korea took the warnings from the W.H.O. seriously. By mid-February, they had over 30 confirmed cases, and by the end of the month, both national and municipal governments were enacting strict containment measures. The country invested in large quantities of test kits, and by early March had opened free drive-through testing centers, combined with rapid contact-tracing that minimized the spread of the disease. Since a spike of 1,000 new cases reported on March 1, South Korea has kept the spread of the infection mostly in check, reporting a mere few dozen new cases each day (as of the time of this writing). The United States did not follow South Korea's lead and was late in making affordable testing readily available. Still, three-and-a-half months later, many within the United States do not have access to testing.

By March, South Korea had begun setting up free drive-through testing sites.

By mid-March, Italy was reporting thousands of new cases of the disease every day, and it's health care system was being completely overwhelmed. Yet the White House still took no action. Individual U.S. cities that saw the first cases had to take it upon themselves to issue business-closures and stay-at-home directives.

But the failures of this administration to respond adequately to a pandemic don't begin with the W.H.O.'s warnings in January. They go all the way back to inauguration. Before the president took office, the outgoing Obama administration held a briefing for incoming Trump administration officials about the risks of a pandemic. Reports from that briefing suggested that members of the incoming administration did not take the briefing seriously. Some reportedly even slept through it. To make matters worse, the administration later disbanded a pandemic response team that had been set up by the Obama administration following the Ebola scare of 2014.

In summary, our government was woefully negligent in its lack of preparedness for a pandemic crisis of this magnitude -- despite having every warning that such a crisis was possible.

Failures of American Capitalism

Sadly, the current executive administration seemed more concerned about protecting the stock market than in protecting human lives during the lead-up and early weeks of the pandemic. The dilly-dallying regarding action from the federal government even allowed multiple corrupt senators to sell stock with advance knowledge that government restrictions were about to crash the economy.

By mid-June the stock market had mostly recovered.
In the meantime, those who sold stock in early March were able to buy it back at a fraction of the value.

The sad reality, however, is that the market crash probably benefited lots of very rich people in the long run. Investors were able to sell stock at prices that have been inflated by the unreasonably low federal interests rates and tax cuts that allowed corporations to further inflate their stock values through buy-backs (as opposed to using the extra cash to invest in higher wages and benefits for workers). Then investors were able to buy those stocks back at cheaper prices a month or two later when many were at half their previous value or lower. In the meantime, companies like Amazon and Netflix (which were allowed to continue doing business) made a killing. Amazon did so by putting the health and safety of its warehouse workers on the line -- even moreso than usual.

Workers across the country have lost their jobs, and are likely to face a hyper-competitive job market in the coming months and years. Many companies will realize that they can operate with reduced staff, so a large fraction of the lost jobs won't be restored when the pandemic is over (whenever that will be). Those who were displaced from those lost jobs will be applying for the fewer remaining jobs, and many will be willing to take lower pay, which will drag down wages overall.

Because of massive disparities between executive pay and lower-level employee pay (among other factors), and stagnant wages over the majority of the last 40 years, many Americans cannot afford to save up money. If further stimulus programs and incentives aren't put in place to keep wages from being lowered, many lower and middle-class Americans will likely have to tighten their belts, and we could see long-term declines in spending that could hurt the economy for years to come. Frustratingly, increases in minimum wage might even exacerbate this issue, as it could lead to companies not hiring as many of the low-wage workers that they have now discovered they can do without.

Average Americans have seen stagnant wages since the '80's, while top-earners saw dramatic increases.

I fear that the combination of decreased government revenue due to tax cuts passed during an economic boom, along with the White House pressuring the Fed to keep interest rates low despite a growing economy, have left the government with few resources to head off these coming economic problems. Poor policy intended to make the already-wealthy even richer (at the cost of working-class people) may have sabotaged the federal government's ability to react to a nation-wide economic crisis.

Mitigating climate change is not that hard

Another interesting outcome of the lockdowns was a dramatic decline in air pollution and atmospheric carbon emissions. Closed business weren't consuming as much electricity for lighting and air conditioning, which reduced energy demand. The more dramatic change however, was the decline in transportation emissions. Travel restrictions, furloughs, and work-from-home directives dramatically reduced traffic on the roads and in the air. I remember seeing estimates as high as a 40% reduction in pollution and carbon emissions in European Union countries. The real value is probably considerably lower though, since carbon emissions are tough to track in real-time.

Travel restrictions, business closures, and work-from-home directives dramatically reduced emissions from vehicles.

What lessons might we have learned from this?

First and foremost, we saw how much of an impact we could have by simply reducing or eliminating discretionary driving. If companies continue to permit part-time work-from-home rules (which they should), we could also see long-term decreases in emissions from people commuting to and from work. These social and economic changes can have a substantial reductive impact on carbon emissions and future global temperature increases.

Disruptions in supply chains and markets also lead to a sharp increase in meat prices and a decrease in availability. Agriculture (and stock animals in particular) produces a lot of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Climate researchers have long recommended that reducing meat consumption would help mitigate climate change. I have to limit my red meat consumption anyway, since I have hereditary high cholesterol. I hope that the reduced supply and high prices of meat in the summer of 2020 should hopefully encouraged many others to cut back on their long term consumption of steak, burgers, bacon, and other meat products.

Back to [bigoted] business as usual?

As if the pandemic weren't enough, this country's rush to get back to business as usual has negated all of the gains that were made during the lockdowns. The state of Florida is perhaps the worst-afflicted, and is now reporting more than 11,000 new cases every day. Clark County, Nevada (where I live) has been seeing its case count slowly escalating since the June re-openings. We're seeing over a thousand new case each day (as of the time of this writing).

By early July, all the gains from social distancing had been erased.

Some states are starting to back-off on their re-opening schedules, Nevada included.

Worse yet, all of this is happening during the midst of protests over police brutality against black citizens. As soon as the lockdowns lifted, America went back to business as usual with police using excessive violence and killing unarmed black people for having committed minor (or non-existent) offenses. Protests have lead to the destruction of Confederate monuments, which has brought out another wave of Confederate apologists erroneously insisting that the Confederacy wasn't racist, which had lead to a wave of regressive counter-protests attempting to defend the Confederacy and the United States' racist history and institutions.

I don't remember who it belonged to, but I saw a social media post last month that summed it all up very elegantly:

"America is so racist, that if you protest racism,
people think you are protesting America.
"

Perhaps that should go on a monument somewhere.

This flag is an un-patriotic symbol of racism.
Almost any contemporary source will tell you
the South fought the Civil War to defend slavery.

The news isn't all bad, however. The state legislature of Mississippi apparently approved removing Confederate symbols from its state flag. So that's a small step towards progress. Stupidly, they are apparently planning on adding "In God We Trust" to the new flag, because the only thing that might be stronger than white fragility in this country is the Christian persecution complex.

But hey, at least we haven't had a school shooting since March!

Comments (1) -

EnPeeSee
EnPeeSee
07/26/2020 16:12:57 #

In the video clip you shared, the LG of Texas didn't mention socialism. And yet you put it in quotes, as if it it was something he actually said. That is very disingenuous.

Interesting how you deride racism and then use terms like "white fragility". It's also very disappointing. I enjoy your blog for game reviews, but things like this sour the experience.

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