COVID-19 is Testing America and We Are Failing

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the United States, fear also continues to grow. For many Americans, though, the fear is not of the virus itself. Instead, they question how they will survive as the country shuts down in order to slow the spread. The impacts of the COVID-19 are only starting to become evident, but already they are striking and severe.

In the early days of this crisis, the economic fear was to figure out how people would survive without working for two weeks, while sick or in necessary self-quarantine. Now, the impacts are much greater: shutting down businesses and mass layoffs, some temporarily and some permanently. An NPR poll showed that, as of March 17, 2020, 18 percent of U.S. workers have lost their jobs or had their hours cut. This number is just the beginning, as CNN reports more than half of U.S. jobs are at risk due to the COVID-19 and protective measures. A paradigm for the detrimental losses is the restaurant industry. Restaurants employ 15.6 million people in the United States and 154,400 in New York City alone. Already, thousands have lost their jobs and many more are likely to follow. Many states, such as New York, have restricted restaurants to “to-go” service only, although this measure has not yet been taken on the national level. As in many other industries, the hardest hit will be small businesses, some of which will never be able to reopen after the restrictive measures are lifted.

These job losses, or even just temporary time without wages, are revealing the fragile living situation of many Americans. 78 percent of workers live paycheck to paycheck in America. This includes one in four families making over $150,000 a year. Almost three in ten adults have no emergency savings whatsoever. These numbers paint a grim picture for financial stability in the United States, leaving many Americans unable to weather this storm that may last for months. This reveals the instability of a supposedly booming economy. A major disaster, such as the pandemic we are experiencing right now, can topple a seemingly strong economy. Although in recent months there have been record highs, the stock market is now crashing, setting new records almost daily for the largest Dow Jones Industrial Average point and percentage falls. Eight of the ten largest point drops have taken place within the past month, and the second largest percentage drop in history took place on March 16, 2020. The 12.93 percent fall that day was worse than Black Thursday, which would devolve into the Great Depression. At its base, an economy is only as strong as its workers- without them, it crumbles. On March 18, 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom of California said  that California typically receives 2,000 unemployment applications in a day, but, on March 17, the state received 80,000. A Goldman Sachs report estimates that 2.25 million Americans filed for unemployment during the week of March 15. This would be the highest level ever recorded. The rise seen from the week before, 33 percent, is already significantly greater than any weekly unemployment increase seen during the financial crisis of 2008, during which the greatest weekly increase was 14 percent. The increase for the week of March 15 is estimated to be eight times the week before, shattering both records. Millions of Americans will face unimaginable hardships in the coming weeks without a source of income, especially those who have been barely scraping by.

Other results of attempts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 harm the most vulnerable among us: children. Per very necessary precautions, schools across the country have been shutting down. The issues now arise in how to provide the essential services schools have been providing, beyond just education. One in seven children in the US live with hunger, and 11 million children live in “food insecurity.” Schools provide food for these children, and 22 million children across the United States are provided with free or reduced price lunch. Not only do many students receive lunch from school programs, but many also receive breakfast and afterschool meals. When out of school, this valuable resource is taken from them. In part, that is why many schools have waited until the last possible moment to close, in an attempt to keep these meals available. Many schools are continuing to provide food although they are closed, by providing bagged pre-prepared meals that students and their families can pick up. Obstacles lie in the way of this plan too, such as transportation to schools or pick up sites, but it is one helpful step being taken in this time of crisis.

The greatest revelation that COVID-19 has so far brought to light is the inadequacies of our health system to face such a large scale pandemic. An Imperial College analysis showed the frighteningly bleak reality; even with mitigation, such as voluntary social distancing and quarantining those known to come in direct contact with the virus, the need for ventilators is exceeded by eight times the available number in the U.S. Only with suppression, enforced social distancing of the entire population and shut down of public gatherings, workplaces and schools, will we not exceed the available number of ventilators. Ventilators are just one aspect of the supplies shortages being faced by hospitals. Other necessities in short supply include beds and essential personal protective equipment, such as masks. The U.S. has fewer doctors and fewer hospital beds per capita than most developed nations, including Italy, which has left us utterly unprepared to face the enormous increase of patients needing medical assistance.

Beyond the physical capabilities of our health system to react to the spread of COVID-19, it also prompts reflection about how workers’ health is valued in the United States. Currently, there are no federal mandates requiring paid sick leave, and only 12 states require employers to provide paid sick leave. Pew Research Center reports, using figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that 24 percent of U.S. civilian workers, about 33.6 million people, do not have paid sick leave. Looking at the lowest quarter of wage earners, only 51 percent of those workers have paid sick leave. Emergency legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by President Trump on March 18, 2020, will provide two weeks of paid sick leave for those impacted by COVID-19 and twelve weeks of paid leave for those who are caring for children whose school or care provider is shut down due to COVID-19. This measure, though, excludes 48 percent of American workers. Of those included, certain small businesses can be exempted. These stopgap measures are important in this time of crisis, but fall grossly short and do not account for the fact that paid sick leave does not only impact working Americans during a pandemic; paid sick leave could provide financial stability to workers and prevent the spread of illnesses at any time, not limited to COVID-19. Workers who cannot afford to take off due to illness will continue to go to work and spread it. Paid sick leave can be a way of mitigating this spread.

COVID-19 will provide a crucial test for the efficacy of our way of life. It will force us to rethink how we measure economic strength and the fragility of many people’s paycheck to paycheck lifestyle. It will force us to consider the roles that schools play for impoverished children across the United States and how they should be funded to ensure that every child can have the resources they need to learn and thrive. No child can learn on an empty stomach, but, more than that, no child should go hungry at any time. It will force us to realize that funding our hospitals and health care workers and the CDC and keeping in place a well prepared pandemic team are necessary to properly prepare for possible crises. The debate will rage on over Single-Payer Healthcare Systems and paid sick leave, but one outcome is certain: we cannot not take the basic luxuries of life for granted again.