From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject Reopening the Economy Will Send Us to Hell
Date May 12, 2020 12:05 AM
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[As we head into the fifth month of the outbreak millions of
working families feel like they have been kidnapped and sent to hell.]
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Mike Davis
April 22, 2020
Labor Notes
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_ As we head into the fifth month of the outbreak millions of working
families feel like they have been kidnapped and sent to hell. _

Medical workers prepare with personal protective equipment (PPE)
before entering a residential building on April 27, 2020 in a
neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York City., Spencer


As unemployment (officially reported) soars toward 30 percent or more,
an estimated 20 million more people will fall helplessly below the
poverty line. In a recent Pew poll, 60 percent of Latinos reported
losing jobs or wages, as did more than half of all workers below the
age of thirty. In addition to their jobs, millions will lose
everything they had spent their lives working for: homes, pensions,
medical coverage, and savings accounts.

Most of us have already lived through a brutal preview of economic
collapse: the 2008–09 “Great Recession
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span of eighteen months a majority of black and Latino families
lost _all_ their net wealth and college grads from non-privileged
backgrounds found themselves marooned, seemingly for life, in the
low-wage service economy. That’s why so many millions flocked to
Bernie Sanders’s New Deal banner. But the threat ahead is mass
immiseration and hunger on a scale unseen since 1933.

People desperately need to go back to work and save what they can of
their lives. But heeding the siren call of the MAGA demonstrators,
puppets on strings manipulated by hedge funds and billionaire casino
owners, to “reopen the economy” would only result in tragedy.
Consider these points:

* Sending millions of people back to work without protection or
testing would be a death sentence for thousands. Thirty-four million
workers are over fifty-five; ten million of them over sixty-five.
Millions more suffer from diabetes, chronic respiratory problems, and
so on. Straight from home to work to ICU to morgue.
* Millions of our “essential workers” face intolerable hazards
because of the shortage of protective equipment. It will be weeks, at
best, before there will be an adequate supply for medical workers.
Workers in warehouses, markets, and fast food have no guarantee of
ever receiving masks, unless legislation compels it. If this is a war,
Trump’s refusal to use existing laws to federalize the manufacture
of masks and ventilators is a war crime.
* The proposal to test people’s blood and then issue back-to-work
certificates if they have the right antibodies is mere fantasy at the
moment. Washington has allowed more than a hundred different firms to
sell serological kits without human trials or FDA certification. The
results they give are all over the map, just a mess. It may be weeks
or longer before public health workers have reliable diagnostics to
use. Even then it would take months to test the workforce and it’s
doubtful that enough people would have the antibodies to safely staff
all the closed businesses.
* The most heroic assumption is that a vaccine could be available by
spring 2021, although no one knows how long its conferred immunity
would last. Meanwhile, hundreds of research teams and smaller biotech
firms are working on medicines that will reduce the risk of
respiratory failure and serious heart or kidney damage. But this
sprawling scientific experiment lacks coordination and funding from

Indefinite Lockout

In a sense, we are living in an indefinite lockout, facing an
administration that sets a higher priority on destroying the US Postal
Service than it does on organizing a crash program to produce the
tests, safety equipment, and antivirals that will allow the United
States to return to work.

Trump’s accomplices are monsters like Amazon, which in two weeks
made Jeff Bezos
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$25 billion richer, and UnitedHealth Group, the world’s largest
health insurance company, whose profits increased by $4.1 billion in
the first three months of the pandemic. Medical insurers have
experienced a windfall, since most of their enrollees are now unable
to book operations or obtain vital treatments.

A volcanic rage is rapidly rising to the surface in this country and
we need to harness it to defend and build unions, ensure Medicare for
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and knock the bastards off their gilded thrones.

How We Got Here

Last New Year’s Eve, while we were lifting our glasses, hugging our
mates, and singing a few verses of a song written several centuries
ago by a Scots revolutionary, Chinese doctors were notifying
colleagues around the world that a rapidly increasing number of acute
pneumonia cases, clustered around the city of Wuhan, was the result of
infections caused by a previously unknown virus.

Within a week it had been gene-sequenced and unmasked as a
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Until 2003, research on this family of viruses had principally
responded to the serious diseases they cause in a variety of animals,
including livestock and poultry. Only two were known to infect humans,
and since they produced only mild colds, researchers at the time
considered them insignificant.

Then in 2003 a new viral epidemic started with a traveler in a Chinese
airport hotel who passed his infection on to everyone with whom he had
contact. Within twenty-four hours the virus had flown to five other
countries. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) killed one out of
every ten victims.

The SARS pathogen was identified as another coronavirus, passed from
bats to small lithe carnivores known as civets, long valued in
southern Chinese cuisine. SARS reached thirty countries and caused a
full-scale international panic. But it had an Achilles’ heel: it was
only contagious at the stage when infected people displayed symptoms
like dry coughing, fever, and muscle aches. Because it was so easily
recognized, the SARS virus was finally contained.

A similar virus, a kind of mummy’s curse spread by tomb bats to
camels, emerged in 2012 and has killed 1,000 people, mainly in the
Arabian Peninsula. But it’s mostly spread by direct contact with
camels and thus has not been considered a candidate for starting a

The Stealth Virus

Researchers hoped that the current killer, a virus known as SARS-C0V-2
and sharing most of its genes with the original SARS, would likewise
be simple to identify through correlation with patients’ symptoms.
They were disastrously mistaken.

After four months of circulation in the human world, we now know that
the virus, unlike its predecessors, flies on the same wings as
influenza: spread easily by people without visible signs of illness.
The current pathogen has turned out to be a “stealth virus” on a
scale far exceeding influenzas and perhaps unprecedented in the annals
of microbiology. The Navy has tested almost the entire crew of the
stricken aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and discovered that 60
percent of those infected never displayed visible symptoms.

A large universe of undetected cases might be considered good news if
infections produced durable immunity, but that doesn’t seem to be
the case. The dozens of antibody-detecting blood tests that are now in
use, all uncertified by the FDA, are producing confusing and
contradictory results, making the idea of a back-to-work antibody ID
card impossible at the moment.

But most recent research (which can be reviewed at the National
Institutes of Health pandemic website, LitCovid
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conferred immunity is very limited and coronavirus could become as
entrenched as influenza. Barring dramatic mutations, second and third
infections will likely be less dangerous to survivors, but there is as
of yet no evidence that they will be any less dangerous to uninfected
people in high-risk groups. So COVID-19 will be the monster in our
attic for a long time.

They Knew This Was Coming

But the disease is not an eruption of the totally unknown, a
biological asteroid. Although its transmissibility was unexpected in a
coronavirus, the pandemic otherwise corresponds closely to the
scenario long described for an avian flu outbreak.

For nearly a generation the World Health Organization (WHO) and all
major governments have been planning how to detect and respond to such
a pandemic. There has always been a very clear international
understanding of the need for early detection, large stockpiles of
emergency medical supplies, and surge capacity in ICU beds. Most
important has the been the agreement of WHO members to coordinate
their response along guidelines they all had voted to accept. Early
containment was crucial: comprehensive testing, contact tracing, and
the isolation of suspected cases. Large-scale quarantines, sealing off
cities, shutting large sectors of the economy — these should be only
last-ditch measures, made unnecessary by extensive planning.

Along these lines, after the arrival of avian flu in 2005 the US
government published an ambitious “National Strategy for Pandemic
Influenza” based on the finding that all levels of the American
public health system were totally unprepared for a large-scale
outbreak. After the swine flu scare in 2009, the strategy was updated,
and, in 2017, a week before Trump’s inauguration, outgoing Obama
officials and incoming Trump administrators jointly carried out a
large-scale simulation that tested the response of federal agencies
and hospitals to a pandemic arising in three different scenarios:
swine flu, Ebola, and Zika virus.

In the simulation the system, of course, failed to prevent the
outbreaks or, for that matter, flatten the curves in time. Part of the
problem was detection and coordination. Another was inadequate
stockpiles and supply chains with obvious bottlenecks, such as
depending on a few overseas factories to produce vital protective
equipment. And behind all this lay the failure to aggressively take
advantage of revolutionary advances in biological design over the last
decade in order to stockpile an arsenal of new antivirals and

In other words, the United States was not ready, and the government
knew it was not ready.

Dominoes of Disaster

By the end of January 2020 three things had happened. First, the WHO
quickly distributed hundreds of thousands of test kits designed by
German scientists but otherwise was pushed to the sidelines while each
nation bolted its doors and ignored previous commitments to mutual

Second, three East Asian nations with well-prepared medical arsenals
and single-payer health systems — South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan
— successfully contained outbreaks with minimal mortality and
moderate periods of social isolation. After early disasters that
allowed the virus to escape on air flights and forced the lockdown of
Wuhan, China mobilized on an unprecedented scale and quickly
extinguished all COVID-19 hotspots outside Wuhan.

Third, our Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) decided to
create its own diagnostic kit rather than use the one distributed by
the WHO. The CDC’s production lines were contaminated with viruses,
however, and the test kits were useless. The entire month of February,
when it was still possible to prevent the exponential increase of
infection through testing and contact tracing, was squandered.

This was the first disaster. The second was in March, when severe and
critical cases began to crowd hospitals. As institutions began to run
out of respirators, N-95 masks, and ventilators, they turned to their
states and then to the federal government’s National Strategic
Stockpile, which had been designed specifically for use during an
outbreak like COVID-19.

But the cupboard was almost bare. It had been largely depleted during
the national panic over swine flu in 2009 and several subsequent
emergencies. The Trump administration had been repeatedly warned of
its statutory duty to restock it, but had other priorities such as
slashing the budget of the CDC and killing the Affordable Care Act.

As a result, millions of American workers have been going into battle
in hospitals, nursing homes, public transit, and Amazon warehouses
without essential protection that costs only pennies to manufacture.
Nothing is as emblematic of the Trump administration’s total
dereliction of duty than the fact that on the same day that the
president was bragging of the United States’ “unmatched scientific
and technological superiority,” the _New York Times_ was devoting
a page to “How to Sew a Mask at Home.”

_Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz, Planet of Slums, Ecology
of Fear, and The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu._

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