2020 August 25

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How the Pandemic Defeated America

A virus has brought the world’s most powerful country to its knees.

Story by: Ed Yong
September 2020 Issue
Editors Note: The Atlantic is making vital coverage of the coronavirus available to all readers. Find the collection here.

How did it come to this? A virus a thousand times smaller than a dust mote has humbled and humiliated the planet’s most powerful nation. America has failed to protect its people, leaving them with illness and financial ruin. It has lost its status as a global leader. It has careened between inaction and ineptitude. The breadth and magnitude of its errors are difficult, in the moment, to truly fathom.

In the first half of 2020, SARS‑CoV‑2—the new coronavirus behind the disease COVID‑19—infected 10 million people around the world and killed about half a million. But few countries have been as severely hit as the United States, which has just 4 percent of the world’s population but a quarter of its confirmed COVID‑19 cases and deaths. These numbers are estimates. The actual toll, though undoubtedly higher, is unknown, because the richest country in the world still lacks sufficient testing to accurately count its sick citizens.

Despite ample warning, the U.S. squandered every possible opportunity to control the coronavirus. And despite its considerable advantages—immense resources, biomedical might, scientific expertise—it floundered. While countries as different as South Korea, Thailand, Iceland, Slovakia, and Australia acted decisively to bend the curve of infections downward, the U.S. achieved merely a plateau in the spring, which changed to an appalling upward slope in the summer. “The U.S. fundamentally failed in ways that were worse than I ever could have imagined,” Julia Marcus, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, told me.

Since the pandemic began, I have spoken with more than 100 experts in a variety of fields. I’ve learned that almost everything that went wrong with America’s response to the pandemic was predictable and preventable. A sluggish response by a government denuded of expertise allowed the coronavirus to gain a foothold. Chronic underfunding of public health neutered the nation’s ability to prevent the pathogen’s spread. A bloated, inefficient health-care system left hospitals ill-prepared for the ensuing wave of sickness. Racist policies that have endured since the days of colonization and slavery left Indigenous and Black Americans especially vulnerable to COVID‑19. The decades-long process of shredding the nation’s social safety net forced millions of essential workers in low-paying jobs to risk their life for their livelihood. The same social-media platforms that sowed partisanship and misinformation during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa and the 2016 U.S. election became vectors for conspiracy theories during the 2020 pandemic.

The U.S. has little excuse for its inattention. In recent decades, epidemics of SARS, MERS, Ebola, H1N1 flu, Zika, and monkeypox showed the havoc that new and reemergent pathogens could wreak. Health experts, business leaders, and even middle schoolers ran simulated exercises to game out the spread of new diseases. In 2018, I wrote an article for The Atlantic arguing that the U.S. was not ready for a pandemic, and sounded warnings about the fragility of the nation’s health-care system and the slow process of creating a vaccine. But the COVID‑19 debacle has also touched—and implicated—nearly every other facet of American society: its shortsighted leadership, its disregard for expertise, its racial inequities, its social-media culture, and its fealty to a dangerous strain of individualism.

SARS‑CoV‑2 is something of an anti-Goldilocks virus: just bad enough in every way. Its symptoms can be severe enough to kill millions but are often mild enough to allow infections to move undetected through a population. It spreads quickly enough to overload hospitals, but slowly enough that statistics don’t spike until too late. These traits made the virus harder to control, but they also softened the pandemic’s punch. SARS‑CoV‑2 is neither as lethal as some other coronaviruses, such as SARS and MERS, nor as contagious as measles. Deadlier pathogens almost certainly exist. Wild animals harbor an estimated 40,000 unknown viruses, a quarter of which could potentially jump into humans. How will the U.S. fare when “we can’t even deal with a starter pandemic?,” Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina and an Atlantic contributing writer, asked me. Despite its epochal effects, COVID‑19 is merely a harbinger of worse plagues to come. The U.S. cannot prepare for these inevitable crises if it returns to normal, as many of its people ache to do. Normal led to this. Normal was a world ever more prone to a pandemic but ever less ready for one. To avert another catastrophe, the U.S. needs to grapple with all the ways normal failed us. It needs a full accounting of every recent misstep and foundational sin, every unattended weakness and unheeded warning, every festering wound and reopened scar. 

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It’s Like a Nightmare: Options Dwindle for Renters Facing Economic Distress

By: Ari Shapiro, NPR
02 Jun 2020
Featured image: A demonstrator in Chicago calls on the governor of Illinois to suspend rent and mortgage payments for those who have lost income during the covid-19 pandemic. (photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

s one of the country’s worst economic and health crises in history deepens, rent is due again for millions of people who are struggling to make ends meet.

Over the last few months, states and the federal government have taken steps to help tenants who’ve lost their jobs. Now, while the unemployment rate is still climbing, some of the protections for renters are running out.

An extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits for eligible people is set to expire at the end of July, for instance.

In March, Elaine Slikkerveer lost her job teaching art for a nonprofit in Reno, Nev., as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, the single mother of two is struggling to pay the rent and has had to consider uprooting her family from the condo they’ve rented for 10 years.

“I have anxiety. I can’t sleep,” 51-year-old Slikkerveer says.

To make her April and May rent, she stopped making payments on other bills, used her government relief checks and dug into her savings. When she reached out to her landlord to discuss June rent, she says that he was not understanding and insisted she needed to pay.

Last week, Slikkerveer’s landlord, John Burkett, told NPR: “I sympathize with Elaine’s current situation and am working with her to ease the stress,” adding that “rental income is my only income so this is definitely putting a burden on me as well.”

In the end, Slikkerveer says that Burkett agreed to waive her late fee and figure out a payment plan.

Slikkerveer says that six months ago, she could never have imagined being in a situation like this.

“I never dreamed about it. And to be honest with you, it’s like a nightmare. It’s a lot of uncertainty,” she says. “I was planning, had everything planned. And nothing in my plan is working. I mean, I have nothing right now.”

As tenants across the U.S. run out of options, more and more are turning to credit cards to pay the rent.

Property management company Zego processes millions of rent checks every month.

It reported that from March to April, the number of tenants putting rent on a credit card increased 30%; from April to May, it went up another 20%.

As of now, about half the states in the U.S. are allowing evictions, according to Emily Benfer of Columbia Law School, who has been tracking state policies around COVID-19 and housing.

Benfer called COVID-19 “a great magnifier of inequity and health injustice across our country.” She says that people of color are evicted at higher rates than white people, especially mothers with kids.

“Today, the net worth of a typical white family is nearly 10 times greater than that of a black family,” Benfer says. “We can expect this divide to widen as COVID-19 mortality and job loss continues to affect communities of color at a higher rate than other groups.”

Some places, such as Kansas City, Mo., are conducting remote eviction hearings by phone or videoconference — effectively deciding that while it’s not safe enough to show up in court, it is safe enough to evict someone from their home.

Over the last couple of months, there hasn’t been a steep drop-off in the number of people paying rent. The question is what will happen in the next few months.

“We’re watching a tidal wave move forward towards us and across the state,” says Lee Camp, an attorney with ArchCity Defenders, a St. Louis nonprofit organization that represents tenants.

He says that the group’s phones have been flooded with calls from people seeking housing assistance. As the state reopens and evictions resume, he predicts that the tidal wave could be “all-consuming for the next few months, if not years.”

There are some variables that will help determine how massive that wave will be. For instance, if Congress doesn’t pass an extension of the extra unemployment benefits, tens of millions more renters could be in trouble.

Before the wave of protests against police violence started, activists around the country were holding rallies to “cancel the rent.”

Ale Lomanto helps organize demonstrations in Philadelphia.

“I feel for my community and my neighbors who have to choose between putting food on the table and housing,” says Lomanto, 26. “And then also putting themselves at risk to work.”

Lomanto owned a pet care business in West Philadelphia before shutting it down in March. Lomanto, who uses the pronoun they, doesn’t know how they’re going to pay rent for June. Lomanto sublets an apartment that’s managed by a company named New Age Realty and is among the 300 tenants petitioning for the suspension of rent payments during the pandemic.

Lance Roger, a real estate lawyer who represents New Age Realty, offers the landlord perspective.

“A lot of these properties are owned by investors, and these are hardworking men and women who are investing for their future,” he says. “So what they’ve done is gone out and gotten mortgages, and when the tenants decide en masse they don’t want to pay their rent, it’s going to impact the ability for the landlords to make their mortgage payments.”

And if more and more mortgages go unpaid, Rogers says, it could have a domino effect with broader impacts on the economy.

In 2008, the financial collapse hit homeowners more than it did renters — but the ripples spread beyond mortgage holders.

This time, if tenants across the country can’t pay the rent, the ripples could reach far beyond the rental market.

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These mayors want to fight Covid-19 and the recession with one big idea: A guaranteed income

Mayors of Atlanta, Los Angeles, Stockton, and other cities want a federal cash program to support their residents in need.

By Dylan Matthews | dylan@vox.com | Jul 21, 2020, 10:00am EDT
Featured image: Michael Tubbs, mayor of Stockton, California, spearheaded Mayors for Guaranteed Income, a coalition of 17 mayors who support implementing a federal guaranteed income. Nick Otto/AFP via Getty Images

An impressively expansive coalition of mayors across the United States has united for a surprising goal: implementing a federal guaranteed income.

Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, announced in a Time opinion piece last month, is the brainchild of Michael Tubbs, the 29-year-old chief executive of Stockton, California, a city of more than 300,000 about 90 minutes east of San Francisco.

Tubbs first encountered the idea of a guaranteed income as a Stanford undergrad when studying Martin Luther King Jr.’s advocacy of the policy. A guaranteed income is an umbrella term for any policy meant to ensure that all citizens have a baseline level of money every year, guaranteed through government checks. For the last three years, Tubbs has been overseeing a pilot program offering 130 low-income Stockton residents $500 a month, no strings attached, to test one model of how this could work.

That effort, the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), began distributing money in early 2019, and while there is no formal research published on it yet, they have so far seen promising results. The money isn’t “wasted” by recipients, as skeptics of a guaranteed income have argued, but is spent on necessities, with food being by far the biggest purchase category.

Tubbs has become a major evangelist for the idea. He told Vox that, after presenting the idea to the US Conference of Mayors in 2018, he was “surprised by how enthusiastic people were.” Then, after the Covid-19 pandemic set in, he found “mayors were hungry for something that met this moment: focusing on root causes, and in line with the spirit of FDR with the New Deal, or JFK and the New Frontier.”

So far, the 17 mayors who have joined Tubbs include prominent names like Los Angeles’s Eric Garcetti, Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms, Seattle’s Jenny Durkan, Oakland’s Libby Schaaf, Newark, New Jersey’s Ras Baraka, and Jackson, Mississippi’s Chokwe Antar Lumumba. All are Democrats (as are most large-city mayors), but Tubbs says the group will become bipartisan “soon.”

The effort has also drawn attention from Silicon Valley philanthropy — Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey donated $3 million to the group as a launch gift.

The group’s purpose is both to advocate for guaranteed income as an idea and to support pilot programs of the idea in the cities of member mayors. Those pilots take up the bulk of the group’s budget and could provide valuable new evidence on the effects of cash transfers as well as build public awareness of the idea.

Schaaf of Oakland says she’s already talking with a “major national funder” about launching a pilot in her city. “What excites me about universal income is that … it will intersect with victims of structural racism,” Schaaf told Vox.

Her city has in the past offered one-time cash assistance to help with homelessness, she says, and while that’s been life-changing for some recipients, it’s not enough. “Limiting cash assistance to one-time has a disparate impact on people of color because racial discrimination is not one-time,” Schaaf said. She’s attracted to guaranteed income and universal basic income because of the policy’s regularity and because it leaves choices to the recipients, not the government. “Government cannot know each and every family’s unique circumstances. It’s disrespectful and inefficient for us to try to,” Schaaf said. “I call it ‘tweezer government.’”

Mayors for a Guaranteed Income’s emergence is the latest evidence to date that universal cash assistance is becoming a mainstream political proposal, not least due to the widespread economic deprivation caused by Covid-19. And Tubbs is clear that the ultimate goal is less the implementation of such policies in the cities they run and more to force guaranteed income onto the agenda of the federal government.

Guaranteed income vs. basic income

The terminology in the name “Mayors for a Guaranteed Income” is important.

“Guaranteed income” isn’t quite the same as another concept that has caught on in recent years: “universal basic income” (UBI), the idea that tech leaders and 2020 presidential contender Andrew Yang have popularized. UBI typically involves proposals that offer enough money for a basic subsistence living (like $1,000 per month, as in Yang’s plan) to every American (or at least every adult American), regardless of their other income.

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‘Heads we win, tails you lose’: how America’s rich have turned pandemic into profit

As 26 million Americans lose their jobs, the billionaire class has added $308bn to its wealth

Jeff Bezos has seen his wealth increase from $105 billion to $130 billion
Jeff Bezos has seen his wealth increase from $105bn to $130bn. Photograph: Mona Chalabi

Dominic Rushe and Mona Chalabi
Sun 26 Apr 2020 05.00 EDT
Last modified on Wed 1 Jul 2020 12.36 EDT

Never let a good crisis go to waste: as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the world, America’s 1% have taken profitable advantage of the old saying.

Some of the richest people in the US have been at the front of the queue as the government has handed out trillions of dollars to prop up an economy it shuttered amid the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, the billionaire class has added $308bn to its wealth in four weeks – even as a record 26 million people lost their jobs.

According to a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive thinktank, between 18 March and 22 April the wealth of America’s plutocrats grew 10.5%. After the last recession, it took over two years for total billionaire wealth to get back to the levels they enjoyed in 2007.

Eight of those billionaires have seen their net worth surge by over $1bn each, including the Amazon boss, Jeff Bezos, and his ex-wife MacKenzie Bezos; Eric Yuan, founder of Zoom; the former Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer; and Elon Musk, the Tesla and SpaceX technocrat.

The billionaire bonanza comes as a flotilla of big businesses, millionaires and billionaires sail through loopholes in a $349bn bailout meant to save hard-hit small businesses. About 150 public companies managed to bag more than $600m in forgivable loans before the funds ran out. Among them was Shake Shack, a company with 6,000 employees valued at $2bn. It has since given the cash back but others have not.Advertisement

Fisher Island, a members-only location off the coast of Miami where the average income of residents is $2.2m and the beaches are made from imported Bahamian sand, has received $2m in aid.

Its residents seemed to be doing fine even before the bailout. This month, the island purchased thousands of rapid Covid-19 blood test kits for all residents and workers. The rest of Florida is struggling. About 1% of Florida’s population has been tested for the coronavirus, behind the national figure of 4%. The state is also in the midst of an unemployment claims crisis, with its underfunded benefits system unable to cope with the volume of people filing.

The banks that were the largest recipients of bailout cash in the last recession have also done well, raking in $10bn in fees from the government loans, according to an analysis by National Public Radio.

“Heads we win, tails you lose,” said Chuck Collins, director of the program on inequality and the common good at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-author of the new report.

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