My last article on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States was written one week ago, when there were about 650 deaths recorded due to the virus. That number has now risen to more than 3700, and is doubling about every three days.
Much has happened in the last seven days: 3.2 million workers filed for new unemployment claims, according to the labor department. This number is far higher than anything ever seen.
Obviously, the impact on the economy is significant, but how significant remains to be seen, as the pandemic will worsen in the next weeks, and perhaps months. Economists, whether bourgeois or Marxist, are being (correctly) cautious about making any firm predictions.
There is still a dire need for greater ability to test for infections, which is necessary to understand how the disease is progressing and to plan how to deal with it. Currently, there have been 170,000 confirmed cases. The real number is much higher, but unknown.
Supposedly, new tests are “in the pipeline”, but have not yet reached those medical centres that can use them in the quantities needed.
Yesterday, President Donald Trump said tests are no longer needed, but even Republican governors are challenging this.
New York epicentre
The epicentre is still in New York state, concentrated in New York City (NYC). But new hot spots are emerging every few days, including in New Orleans, Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago and more, including small cities.
It will reach rural America. Hospitals there are often 30 kilometres from towns, and are ill-equipped to handle those sick enough to require hospitalisation. Many have few beds, no ventilators and do not have the personal protective equipment (PPE) for nurses and doctors.
Even in the bigger hospitals in hot spots, there is still not enough PPE to adequately protect health workers exposed to the sickest patients, including in intensive care units (ICU).
In emotional interviews on TV and in the press, many nurses and doctors express fear that they will get sick, infect others, perhaps bring the virus home and infect their families. Some doctors have died, and more doctors are in danger. Significant numbers of nurses and other medical workers are in quarantine because they have tested positive.
Those heroes not in quarantine show up and spend long hours treating patients. They say they are in mental stress, especially in the ICUs where the deaths have occurred. In one New York hospital, large refrigerated trucks are being used as morgues as the bodies pile up.
The other great shortage is ventilators for those patients who cannot breathe on their own. Tens of thousands will be needed in the coming weeks, as the number of cases rises at an exponential rate.
In the New York epicentre, the state governor and the NYC mayor have said for weeks that 30,000 ventilators will be needed in the next weeks.
Trump attacked them recently, saying “I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators. You know, you go into major hospitals, sometimes they have two ventilators. And now, all of a sudden, they’re saying ‘Can we order 30,000 ventilators?’ ”
Such abysmal ignorance on the part of the most powerful person in the country shows what we are up against.
A few days later, Trump reversed himself and said he would use his emergency powers to force industrial companies to begin producing ventilators on a mass scale. In reality, he did no such thing and has just asked companies to consider doing it.
The Ford automobile company has paired with a smaller company that has the expertise to begin building ventilators. They have promised to manufacture 100,000, beginning at the end of April and continuing through June. General Motors is doing the same.
However, state governments need ventilators now, and are being forced to try to buy them from private vendors in the US and internationally. This puts the states in competition for ventilators, as the NY governor explained. They are forced to outbid each other, jacking up the price. The vendors, of course, take advantage of this situation.
Trump had said the “stay at home” policy to reduce the spread of the virus would be ended by Easter, everyone would go back to work and the economy would “take off”.
Then, two weeks before Easter, he backed off. Apparently, the scientists had gotten through his thick skull. He reversed what he had been saying for months — that there was only a small danger from the virus and it would soon “miraculously disappear, poof”.
For the first time, Trump acknowledged the seriousness of the pandemic, and said that between 100,000–200,000 deaths would occur. The narcissist then gave himself another pat on the back, saying that number would be achieved, because of the great work he was doing, and that without him the number would be much higher.
There is another aspect of the pandemic: the disproportionate burden on the most vulnerable, including the homeless, prisoners, undocumented people and the poorest.
What does “stay at home” mean to the homeless? Those on the street cannot protect themselves that way. Many businesses that homeless people use for bathrooms and toilets, such as Starbucks, are closed, causing greater distress.
Where homeless people congregate for mutual support, they are open to contagion. Many have no health insurance, or have other reasons for not going to the doctor when the first symptoms of COVID-19 appear, which are similar to a cold or flu. Undoubtedly, some get sick and die, and are not counted.
Undocumented people fear seeking official help, lest they be deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
It is impossible to practice “safe space” between individuals in prison, or those being held in ICE’s detention centres. There are 2.3 million people in jails or prisons.
Activists are teaming up with the homeless in Los Angeles and Oakland in California to occupy homes and buildings left uninhabited. Such acts of resistance are noteworthy, although they cannot meet the scale of the problem.
Others have succeeded in getting some prisoners released, and are putting the spotlight on children in ICE’s dungeons, and this may have some results.
There have been articles in the socialist press about how the overall failure worldwide to take the steps early enough to prepare for the virus are rooted in decades of neoliberal austerity, including privatisation, deregulation, cutbacks in health services and so on.
Even in Britain, which does have socialised medicine, there have been big cutbacks in the National Health Service over recent decades, including in preparedness for medical crises. Here in the US, with its private health system, the austerity business model has left the system completely unprepared.
Part of the neoliberal business model is “just in time” delivery of goods used in production. For the health system, that has meant that personal protection equipment items or ventilators are only ordered just in time — as determined by averaging use in the past. Supplies have to be very low before reordering is done. Stockpiling in preparation for a sudden medical crisis is just not good business practice when profit is the main goal.
We see the result in the COVID-19 pandemic.