Archive for category: Pandemic
Susanne Moser remembers exactly when the global death toll from the coronavirus passed 100,000. It was April 10, Good Friday, and for the Massachusetts-based researcher, the rising deaths around the world — combined with the Catholic holiday commemorating the death of Jesus — brought on a profound feeling of grief. But now, as the United States reels from 200,000 new COVID-19 cases daily, the rising numbers don’t mean quite as much.
“It’s just become part of my daily life,” Moser said. “I don’t have the same emotional response of grief and sadness as I did in the early days.”
Many people feel the same way. Google searches for “coronavirus” and “COVID-19” peaked in the spring and have been on a downward trend ever since. Research published last month from scientists in the United Kingdom and Italy found that online comments and interest in the pandemic declined rapidly after the initial lockdowns in March, even as caseloads continue to rise in the U.K., U.S., and Canada. And a recent Pew poll found that while 57 percent of Americans were following news about the COVID-19 crisis “very closely” in March, just 37 percent were doing so by mid-October.
Psychologists say that the falloff in attention, however horrifying the news, makes a lot of sense. Over time, people simply become desensitized to fear, death, and trauma. This phenomenon is known as “psychic numbing,” and it can help explain why record fires, floods, and hurricanes have started to feel commonplace in the age of climate change, and why — despite more than 3,000 Americans died from COVID-19 on Wednesday alone — some are tuning the pandemic out. “You start to get numb, and you don’t worry as much anymore – even if there’s still a reason to worry,” Moser said.
Getting used to things is just what humans do. It’s what has allowed most of us to get through the constant upheavals and wild news of 2020. But for severe, global problems, psychic numbing can have dangerous implications. It could mean that we ignore the roughly 250,000 people estimated to die annually of climate change-related causes by 2030; or that, in the age of COVID-19, people start to forget about the pandemic, flout social distancing rules, and spread the disease.
Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, has been studying psychic numbing for decades – trying to understand why people disconnect from horrific problems like pandemics, genocides, or climate change. “The difference between no one at risk and one person in danger is huge,” he said. “But if I told you there were 87 people in danger in some situation, and then said ‘Oh no, it’s actually 88’ – you wouldn’t feel any different.” At higher numbers, concern can even disappear entirely; as Slovic summarizes, “The more who die, the less we care.”
Plenty of research has backed this up. In a 2014 study, Slovic and other researchers found that people were willing to donate more money to a single hungry child than they were to two hungry children – and their compassion faded even more for eight children. In a similar 2007 experiment, one group of people was shown a picture and description of a 7-year-old girl in need. Another group was shown the same picture and description, but also told that there were 3 million other children starving in the region. For the second group, donations fell by half.
There are a few psychological dynamics at play here. First, humans struggle to comprehend large numbers – we’re terrible at grasping things like exponential growth and compound interest. It’s easier to understand a problem facing a single person. But people also disconnect when they feel they can’t make any difference in the issue at hand. Slovic said that in the experiment with the 7-year-old girl, “people didn’t feel as good about helping this child when they realized there were a million other children they weren’t helping.” Similarly, in a study conducted after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, subjects were less willing to send the same amount of aid to a refugee camp of 250,000 than they were to a refugee camp of 11,000.
The same phenomenon may be at work in reactions to COVID-19. Most people can’t intuitively fathom the difference between 10,000, 100,000, or even 300,000 lost lives. As the numbers get bigger, scientists and media outlets reach for increasingly catastrophic comparisons: a 9/11 every single day. Twice the number of U.S. service members killed in World War I. But faced with such catastrophic numbers, people might start to think that anything they do – wearing a mask, washing hands, avoiding family gatherings – won’t make much of a dent.
This concern is familiar to those who study climate change. Researchers have long worried that the steady drumbeat of climate disasters may, paradoxically, cause people to lose interest. “You can only take in so much,” said Moser, who studies climate change communication. “If in one year we had a huge fire, floods in the Midwest, several hurricanes hitting the East Coast and the Gulf … I think it would be very difficult in that context to still feel as horrified about the last death as about the first death.” Add in the fact that it’s basically impossible for any one person to influence what happens to the temperature of the planet (except for perhaps Greta Thunberg and some presidents and prime ministers), and climate change seems to be a recipe for apathy and denial.
That’s not to say that going numb is always a bad thing. Moser says that numbing can be adaptive – a way for people to work, exercise, and spend time with friends and family without emotionally falling apart. “We just can’t function if we’re constantly on high alert,” she explained. Moser recommends that people take targeted breaks from the news media when they start to feel numb or overwhelmed. “When so many people have died the most appropriate thing to feel is grief,” she said. “If you can no longer feel grief or sadness then you need to take a timeout, and I’m not sure that space ought to be filled with more news.”
Slovic says that there are also ways to combat psychic numbing. Members of the media can highlight individual stories, instead of overall numbers, thus activating the more emotional side of the brain. And mere understanding of numbing, he argues, can help people shake themselves out of an apathetic state. “The first step is awareness,” he said. “To make people aware of the way our minds lead us to do things that may contradict our values” – like ignoring COVID-19 restrictions to fly across the country, or dismissing mask regulations as overkill.
Back in 2000, a University of Oregon sociologist named Kari Norgaard spent several months in a rural village in western Norway, studying how the residents responded to an unusually warm winter that was a clear harbinger of climate change. But even though the Norwegians knew about global warming, Norgaard argued that they lived in a kind of “double reality,” both accepting – and almost completely ignoring – the melting ice caps and disappearing snow. They spent their days, she wrote, “thinking about more local, manageable topics.”
As the pandemic turns one year old this month, many Americans have learned to live in a similar “double reality”: accepting the presence of COVID-19 while still, as much as possible, going about their daily lives. It’s a sign, Moser says, of what we might see as the Earth’s temperature continues to rise. “Climate change is going to be with us for the rest of our lives,” she said. “How are we going to stay alert and respond effectively to something that is stuck with us for so long?”
This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Psychic numbing: Why rising death tolls no longer shock us on Dec 11, 2020.
Right-wingers express their hatred by waving guns around, but spreading the virus was a much deadlier assault
The ever-shifting demands of parenting in a pandemic are leading to stress, anxiety, and depression. | Getty Images
“I don’t know anyone that is not struggling” at this point in the pandemic, one mom says.
The past few weeks have been an especially hard part of an already hard year for Alison Wathen. There was a Covid-19 outbreak at her twins’ day care center, meaning her 11-month-old son and daughter were home — and needing all the undivided attention a baby needs, times two — while she and her husband traded off working. But now her husband’s company wants employees to come back to work in person and she doesn’t know when — or what precautions they’ll take to keep them safe. On top of it all, two of her uncles and her 91-year-old grandmother have been hospitalized with Covid-19.
Wathen, like many parents around the country, is trying to hang in there while struggling with the isolation, uncertainty, and sadness that are practically the definition of parenting in 2020. But she — again, like so many — has been scrambling to find fixes to whatever crisis comes next, pushing through day care shutdowns, scheduling nightmares, and family illnesses for nine months now, with little relief in sight.
When the pandemic first hit, her twins were less than 4 months old and she was still dealing with postpartum depression. She and her husband uprooted their family from their home outside Chicago to live with her parents in Michigan, so they could help with child care. Now they’re back in Illinois, and the kids are back in day care. But Wathen and her husband have used up all of their paid time off, so if the twins need to come out of day care again due to rising Covid-19 rates, the family may have to go back to Michigan yet again.
While her postpartum depression has since cleared, “it’s just normal depression now,” she says. “It’s been a long-ass road.”
Millions of parents were already burned out by the demands of pandemic child-rearing in April. Summer, with school out and many camps closed, brought no relief. Then came fall, with many parents juggling the ins and outs of remote learning — and a staggering 865,000 women, many of them moms, dropping out of the workforce. Now it’s December, and parents are still in the same situation they were thrust into nine months ago: trying to balance work, child care, education, and keeping their families safe as a pandemic rages virtually unchecked around them.
“I don’t know anyone that is not struggling,” Susannah Lago, a mom, business owner, and founder of the group Working Moms of Milwaukee, told Vox.
While some parents, like Wathen and her husband, have been able to get help with child care, that’s often come at a cost of greater uncertainty — how long will the school stay open? Is it safe? What are the pros and cons of keeping a child at home?
“It’s like there’s no right decision you can make,” Lago said.
The ever-shifting demands of parenting in a pandemic are leading to stress, anxiety, and depression, not to mention economic hardship for those forced to leave their jobs to care for kids. And while some parents are figuring out ways to lighten their burden, many say what’s needed are systemic changes to work, education, and child care in America.
But that’s unlikely to happen in the next few months. And so many parents have been left to fend for themselves, with their reserves of strength, energy, positivity — and sleep — long tapped out.
In the spring, millions of parents became teachers overnight
Beginning in March, schools and day cares in all 50 states closed their doors in an effort to stem the spread of Covid-19. The result: Parents around the country were suddenly forced to care for their children full time, and often supervise their online learning, all while continuing to do their own jobs in the midst of a deadly pandemic.
Then they just kept doing it for nine more months.
To say parents are struggling is an understatement. Sixty-three percent say the pandemic made the 2019-2020 school year extremely stressful for them, according to an August survey conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of the American Psychological Association. In the same survey, 77 percent of parents of 8- to 12-year-olds said that uncertainty about the 2020-2021 school year was causing them stress.
And that was before the school year even started. Now, many parents are watching arrangements they once hoped were temporary — caring for kids during the day and working late into the night, splitting up work shifts with partners, moving in with grandparents in order to get child care — stretch through the winter and beyond. “The longer all this goes on, the harder it is,” Mary Alvord, a DC-area psychiatrist who has worked with the APA on its stress surveys, told Vox.
On top of it all, parents have had to contend with the stress of continual school closures and reopenings this fall as districts try to navigate rising cases in their communities and quarantine of students and staff exposed to the virus. For example, over the course of three weeks, New York City shut down all of its schools, reconsidered, and has now reopened most but not all elementary schools.
All the changes are leading to “a lot of disruption and a lot of confusion” for parents, Linda Citlali Halgunseth, a parenting researcher and professor at the University of Connecticut, told Vox. “There’s just a lot on their plate.”
“If I was to think of one word, I would say guilt,” says Dawn Demps, a doctoral student at Arizona State University who’s finishing her dissertation while homeschooling her 16-year-old son and helping her 8-year-old daughter with remote elementary school. “You feel like you’re not doing enough.”
In particular, Demps regrets that her kids aren’t able to spend time with other kids or go to the playground — since she has multiple sclerosis, her family has to be especially careful about Covid-19 precautions. “You have to understand, Mommy could get sick,” Demps tells her 8-year-old. But for her, as a mom, there’s “a lot of guilt in that.”
While some families did find relief when the weather warmed and kids and parents alike were able to socialize outdoors, colder temperatures now are making even this outlet difficult, and parents’ mental health is suffering. “I’ve definitely seen a drop in mood in terms of sadness, more isolation, and more family tension,” Alvord said.
The isolation is taking its toll on Wathen and her family. Now “instead of arguing with my mother” like she did when they were living with her parents, “I’m arguing with my husband,” she said. Being unable to see anyone outside the family, “we’ve reached a level of exhaustion,” she said.
Not being able to introduce their babies to extended family has been especially hard. When they Skype with relatives, her daughter “keeps trying to hug her grandparents and great-grandparents through the screen.”
Parents are caring for kids full time while trying to do their jobs. It’s taking its toll.
As they try to manage their children’s education and questions about when they will see loved ones again, many parents are also trying to work, something that hasn’t gotten any easier since the pandemic began. In fact, research shows Americans have actually worked more hours per week since March.
For Lago, whose two children have been at home since the spring, pandemic working parenthood means being “the primary person in terms of the schooling assistance, and then at the same time trying to manage my business and getting back to clients.” Nine months in, there are some things she doesn’t spend time worrying about anymore, like whether her son is falling behind in remote school — she figures he’s learning a lot by spending time with his family anyway.
Other things, though, have stayed just as hard. It’s “the managing everything,” Lago says, even down to domestic duties like laundry. “You kind of decide what’s important in the moment and you can focus on that and do a good job with that, but something else has got to give, and something else will.”
For parents working on the front lines of the pandemic, meanwhile, household stresses are combined with the daily fear of contracting Covid-19. Tierney Konitzer’s partner, a critical care nurse, had to live apart from her and their 3-year-old daughter for several weeks during the spring surge in their part of Wisconsin. It was “terrifying” for her and hard on their daughter — “we had huge behavioral issues with her because she didn’t understand why she couldn’t see her daddy, why she couldn’t hug her daddy.”
The family is back living together, and Konitzer’s partner, who works weekends, is able to care for their daughter for much of the week. But with cases climbing to record levels around the country, Konitzer fears another separation is coming soon.
And even now, it’s not easy. Getting work done at home with her daughter doing remote preschool in the basement is a challenge, to say the least. “It’s hard to get the work done just because mom instinct kicks in,” Konitzer said. “Also, it’s just loud.”
“I feel guilty that she wants me and I have to say no over and over and over again, and I feel guilty that I’m distracted from my work and not feeling like I’m giving 100 percent of myself to my job,” she added.
Meanwhile, balancing the demands of work and family has simply become untenable for some families — or their employers have made it so. Kari McCracken, for example, told Vox’s Bryce Covert earlier this fall that she was called back to her job at a bottling company in June after being furloughed but couldn’t find child care for her kids. As a result, the company let her go. “It crushed me,” she said.
Lack of child care is likely a big reason more than 850,000 women dropped out of the workforce in September — more than in any other month on record except for this April, Covert reports. Overall, moms have borne a bigger share of the pandemic parenting burden than dads, with 80 percent of mothers of kids under 12 saying they are responsible for the majority of distance learning in their homes in one April survey. And single moms have been the hardest-hit of all: The share of unpartnered moms in the workforce dropped from 76.1 percent in September 2019 to 67.4 percent in September 2020, a significantly larger drop than those seen among partnered parents or single dads, according to a Pew analysis.
For some parents, leaving the workforce means being pushed into poverty, with Black and Latinx families at disproportionate risk due to racial pay and wealth gaps. “A lot of Black children are in households where there’s just mom working or there are two parents both working in order to make ends meet,” Jessica Fulton, the vice president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, told the New York Times in June.
Even if parents are able to keep their jobs and pay the bills, there’s a mental and emotional toll that comes with month after month of raising kids during a pandemic. One Canadian study of new moms found that 40.7 percent had depressive symptoms, compared to 15 percent before the pandemic, and 72 percent experienced anxiety, a 43 percent increase from before.
And dealing with stress and anxiety is made all the harder by the fact that there’s no time for parents to recharge. When it comes to self-care, it’s telling that many tips for parents in 2020 are things that take little to no time, like spending a tiny bit longer in the shower. Downtime on nights and weekends is mostly a thing of the past. “Night is the time when I can catch up on a lot of stuff,” Lago said. “I will work after kids go to bed.”
Nor can parents easily de-stress by spending time with friends — especially now that the weather is getting cold and the virus is running rampant. “I have definitely struggled because I’m a social person,” Konitzer said. “I am not able to recharge my battery by being in the office or by being able to go out with friends.”
Over these long months that all run together — “I don’t even realize that it’s December,” she says — the isolation has been draining for the whole family. “We are all, I think, sick of each other.”
Parents are finding ways to make things work, but they need support
There have been a few bright spots for parents amid the darkness of 2020. Now that she’s homeschooling her son, Demps has seen him starting to love school for the first time. Some of that may be thanks to the curriculum that Demps, who studies education and the school-to-prison pipeline, has tailor-made for him. She’s teaching him about Black history, global economic issues, and, because he wants to become a chef, culinary science. “He actually bugs me, like, Mama, did you put up my work?” Demps said.
And around the country, many Black parents are reporting that having their children home during this time allows them to shelter them to some degree from racism in schools, Halgunseth said. It also allows Black parents to provide kids with “positive messages about their history” and other “information that they don’t feel is being covered in the school,” Halgunseth added.
Parents are also finding ways to create special moments even when everything looks different. Liz Henkel-Lorenz, a New Jersey mom of two, says when her wife’s family came to visit in early November, they knew it might be the last time for many months. So they celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve — all in one week. “Tuesday was Thanksgiving, and then Friday was Christmas Eve, and Saturday morning we opened presents,” Henkel-Lorenz said.
Other families are coming together to help each other out with school. Andréa Michel and her husband, for example, are sharing remote-school duties with two other families in their Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, neighborhood. She supervises her two children plus four more every Wednesday, and while she sometimes has to take a few minutes away from the chaos just to breathe, “this way has worked out much better than when everything first shut down,” she says. “I was a terrible teacher and a terrible administrator.”
But even though individual families are finding ways to make pandemic child-rearing a little easier, parents and experts alike agree they need more support than they’re getting. School and district administrators need to be more proactive in reaching out to parents, especially parents of color, to make sure they’re included in decisions that affect their kids, Demps said. “They need to be empowered at the table, and what they say needs to matter.”
“Will we remain unchanged, insisting on detached, top-down learning in the face of human tragedy?” Demps and a group of mothers and education scholars wrote in an open letter in May. “Or will we seize this time as a unique opportunity to truly pause and reflect, to reach out to families and really get to know them, and to rethink the meaning of education so that we can co-create a new way?”
Parents and child care workers (who often have children of their own) would benefit from greater investment in child care infrastructure in this country, to make care more available and affordable for parents and to ensure that care workers, who often make less than $11 an hour, actually get a living wage. “As a nation, we really need to look at child care and elevating the providers and the educators,” Alvord said.
Many child care experts have called for a $50 billion bailout of the child care industry, both to carry it through the pandemic and to strengthen it for the future. And President-elect Joe Biden has proposed a caregiving plan that would lift the wages of child care workers while subsidizing care for families, with the goal of not just restoring America’s pre-pandemic child care infrastructure but improving it.
Employers, too, need to allow more flexibility in recognition of the extraordinary situation parents find themselves in, Halgunseth said. Right now, many are trying to balance being a “full-time parent, full-time teacher, and their full-time job,” she said. “Something needs to give.”
And while flexible hours are important, many say there just isn’t enough time in the day for everything that’s being asked of parents. “I think we need a shift in hours,” Konitzer said. She’d like to see “even a 30-hour workweek, just to have a couple extra hours to balance this stuff all out.”
But that would require a large-scale shift in American work culture. So far, that hasn’t really happened. Instead, it’s falling to parents — especially moms — to make an impossible situation work, with only the most uncertain of ends in sight. Working in health care, Wathen understands what a medical breakthrough the vaccines are. But mentally, the prospect of a vaccine “has actually made it worse because now there is a horizon to look toward,” she said. “I don’t want the hope right now. I just want stability.”
A banner hangs on a rent-controlled apartment building in Washington, DC, in August. | Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images
About four times what Congress is currently proposing, according to one estimate.
The clock is ticking on much-needed stimulus for the economy amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only is it too late to stop some of the damage, but chances are, any stimulus that does come is going to be much, much too little to be effective.
The latest bipartisan offer on the table in Congress is a $908 billion stimulus bill. It’s a substantial number that’s about $500 billion more than Republicans recently proposed. But according to a new paper from economists Adam Hersh and Mark Paul commissioned by the Groundwork Collaborative — a progressive economic think tank — really reviving the United States economy could require three, even four times that: The pair estimates Congress would need to pass $3 to $4.5 trillion in economic relief in the near term to get the economy to reach its full potential.
“Economics has given us all the tools we need to address the crisis, and we just need the policymakers to open up the checkbooks of the US government,” said Paul, a political economist at the New College of Florida and a Roosevelt Institute fellow.
While the Federal Reserve has taken extraordinary measures, such as slashing interest rates and resuming securities purchases, to boost the markets and economy using the tools it has available, Congress has not followed suit. And that’s likely to cause long-term damage as well as a slower recovery, with the people at the bottom of the economic ladder left behind. Hersh and Paul make the case that the best way to avoid this scenario is for lawmakers to inject trillions of dollars into the economy to achieve full employment — and create a new normal that is better for all Americans.
The researchers also say it’s important to enact automatic triggers that will renew key parts of a stimulus package as long as necessary. The extra $600 a week in expanded unemployment insurance ended in July, and other stimulus programs are set to expire at the end of the year. But that isn’t because the economy is running on all cylinders and the pandemic is over. It’s because Congress put in place arbitrary — and overly optimistic — timelines on when support would no longer be necessary.
What the economy really needs: A lot of money to a lot of people, now
The United States economy added 245,000 jobs in November. Pre-pandemic, that would have been a decent amount, but in the current moment, it’s woefully insufficient. The US is still 10 million jobs short of the employment level when the coronavirus hit, and if this pace of recovery holds, it will be years before those jobs are recovered.
The economy isn’t as bad as some people feared at the outset of the pandemic — the current unemployment rate is 6.7 percent — but it’s not great. What’s more, that 6.7 percent number masks the number of people who have given up on job searching and dropped out of the labor force altogether. Women, in particular, are leaving the workforce at an alarming rate. If the labor force participation rate matched the rate in 2007 before the Great Recession, Hersh and Paul estimate that the unemployment rate would be 13 percent — nearly double the official number.
“We know that right now and over the past several business cycles, a lot of people have been disappearing from the labor force who otherwise should be working,” Hersh said. “They’ve dropped out by the millions, so we’re dramatically undercounting what the real rate of unemployment is.”
Digging out of that hole would require trillions of dollars, though the exact amount depends on the multiplier — basically, how much bang the federal government could get for its buck.
One particularly effective way of increasing that multiplier would be to give cash assistance, like the $1,200 checks that went out to many Americans in the spring. Money that goes to those that need it most is generally a more successful stimulus arrangement, because those people tend to spend the money and put it back into the economy instead of saving it.
And millions of Americans are increasingly in need: According to Census Bureau data, one-third of adults in the US are having trouble paying for usual household expenses. “We know that [money] is just going to right back out the door when they get it,” said Hersh, the director of Washington Global Advisors and a research associate at the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Analyses from the Congressional Budget Office find that each dollar of net spending given to corporations generates about $0.40 in extra economic activity and every dollar given to high-income people generates $0.60. But Hersh and Paul say that a dollar in direct transfer payments to an individual generates $2.10. The impact is higher when it goes to people who are financially stressed and have less disposable income, and when it goes into regional economies that are particularly impacted. People need money, and so do state and city government whose budgets were slammed by the pandemic.
One unknown regarding multipliers like direct transfers is the effect of social distancing — as long as the virus is still spreading, spending habits will be far from normal, and the economy can’t get back to normal.
But the main takeaway is that Congress should inject a lot of money — and do it fast — to repair the damage caused by two recessions arriving over the span of about a decade. One important lesson from the Great Recession is that fiscal stimulus efforts fell short, and in turn, the recovery was slow, as Hersh and Paul write:
Michigan did not return to its pre-Great Recession level of output until 2015. Arizona did not surpass its pre-recession level of output until 2016. Connecticut’s economy never recovered: by the time the pandemic began, Connecticut’s gross state product stood 4.2 percent below its 2007 level, after adjusting for inflation. As a nation, relative to pre-Great Recession trends, an estimated seven million potential workers have gone missing from the labor force in the face of poor job prospects resulting from insufficient macroeconomic policy support.
The US risks making the same mistake now, particularly if Congress doesn’t spend enough money to really boost the economy and get the unemployment rate so low that workers are pulled back into the market. Doing so would help workers of color, especially Black workers, who historically have a much higher unemployment rate than white workers.
“In order to bring all those people back into the labor force and see wage gains extend to those groups, we need to get unemployment down to a very low level,” Hersh said.
Some critics will point to the federal deficit and say such an expenditure would add too much to the country’s debt and endanger the US economy long term. And Republicans in Congress have already begun making this argument, claiming that Democrats’ plans for a multi-trillion-dollar stimulus go too far.
But Republicans also passed a tax cut bill that disproportionately benefited corporations and the wealthy in 2017 without worrying very much about the estimated $1.5 trillion it is projected to add to the debt. The Federal Reserve has said it plans to keep interest rates low for a long time, meaning borrowing costs will remain low. If there were ever a moment to invest in the US economy, it’s now.
“Without this kind of fiscal support, we’re going to leave a gaping hole in the economy,” Hersh said.
Congress is all but certain to fall short on the economy
It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where the Covid-19 pandemic played out much differently in the US. Had the country been able to get the coronavirus under control, and had Congress put in place economic supports that were predicated on metrics of recovery instead of hoping things would be fine by July or December, the picture in America might be quite different from what it is now.
Instead, 2021 is just weeks away, and most of the mechanisms put in place under the first congressional stimulus package, the CARES Act passed in March, are about to expire or already have. An estimated 12 million Americans are poised to lose their unemployment insurance benefits on December 26, the day after Christmas. Tens of millions of people face possible eviction or foreclosure once a federal eviction moratorium expires on January 1. States and cities are facing enormous budget shortfalls. Student borrowers who have has their student loan payments put on pause are waiting month by month to see whether they’ll start to owe again.
With these crises weeks away, Congress is still haggling. Democrats in the House passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act — on the low end of what Hersh and Paul believe is needed to really help the economy — back in May, but beyond that, there just hasn’t been much progress. The Senate never voted on the HEROES Act, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seems reluctant to get on board with much of anything. There’s hope in the new $908 million bipartisan proposal, but it’s hard to believe that will be enough.
Ultimately, the economy is made up of people, people are hurting, and lawmakers aren’t helping them. Past recessions have made it clear that recovery can take a long time, meaning today’s inaction will be a drag on the country, and financial problems for its people, for years to come.
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Opportunistic university administrators seize the opportunity presented by Covid to gut academic freedom and turn faculty into employees
In the spring, during the first COVID-19 surge in the United States, the rising death toll reached a sobering peak in April—a seven-day average of 2,116 daily deaths. This past weekend, the seven-day average of U.S. deaths from COVID-19 broke that record twice, at 2,123 on Saturday and 2,171 yesterday, according to the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic.
Yesterday, the seven-day average for all four of the primary metrics that the COVID Tracking Project follows—tests, cases, hospitalizations, and deaths—were at record highs. But deaths offer the clearest comparison with the spring surge, because in those early weeks many more cases were going uncounted while testing was slow to ramp up. If the seven-day average of deaths remains above the spring record in the weeks to come, it will soon be inarguable that the pandemic winter is worse than the novel coronavirus’s first surge.
And every indication is that this surge will continue to worsen for some time, because of the other milestones the U.S. has passed in recent days: 100,000 hospitalizations for the first time, the first consecutive days of more than 2,500 deaths (three, in fact), the first day of more than 200,000 new cases (which was followed by two more days above this threshold).
Another foreboding sign is how bad conditions are across the country. From the beginning of November through yesterday, there were more than 100 COVID-19 deaths per 1 million people in the Northeast, the South, and the Midwest (which, at 267 deaths per million, had the highest rate in that period), according to COVID Tracking Project data. In the West, the rate was 94 deaths per million. In April, during the first surge, only two regions, the Northeast (602 deaths per million) and the Midwest (138 deaths per million), were above that line; the West was at just 50 deaths per million. During July, only the South exceeded 100 deaths per million.
In this surge, then, the share of deaths is more evenly distributed across the country. In the same period, starting in November, the Midwest represented 37 percent of U.S. deaths; the South, 35 percent; the West, 15 percent; the Northeast, 14 percent. In April, 60 percent of deaths occurred in the Northeast; no other region accounted for more than 17 percent. Since then, no region has seen anything like the conditions once seen in the Northeast, but seven months later, the picture in the country as a whole could be worse.
The seven-day average of deaths is crucially important because the daily death toll is a noisy number. We know from experience that the daily toll falls, substantially, after weekends and holidays because the people counting get a merciful break. Any high daily death toll is worrisome—no matter what, it represents a lot of recent deaths—but the average gives a better indication of the rise and fall of the toll across the country.
While this new record is chilling, and perhaps boosted by numbers coming in after the Thanksgiving delay, it’s not unexpected. The unprecedented hospitalization numbers, which doubled over the course of November, made it all but inevitable. The proportion of cases that end in deaths—the case-fatality rate—is much lower now than it was in the spring, but progress on lowering that number stalled in August, as the epidemiologist Trevor Bedford found last month.
Worse yet, the country could lose what progress it has made on the case-fatality rate since the spring and see it increase, which would mean that people could die who, under other circumstances, might not have. Improvements in the outcomes of COVID-19 cases came in part from doctors and nurses learning how better to identify and treat the disease’s most serious symptoms, which can vary widely from patient to patient. Health-care workers cannot provide that level of care when hospitals are overwhelmed by the most serious COVID-19 cases.
As Robinson Meyer and Alexis Madrigal have reported, hospitals have now hit a breaking point at which they no longer have the capacity to treat COVID-19 patients that, not long ago, might have been hospitalized. One indication, observed by Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, is that in recent weeks, about 3.5 percent of cases translated into hospitalizations a week later. But that number has started falling. The University of Nebraska Medical Center—which started preparing for such a scenario in 2003, making it perhaps the nation’s best-prepared hospital—was nearing its breaking point at the end of November, Ed Yong found.
The last three weeks of the year will tell us the magnitude of the situation. Thanksgiving caused a data lag, and the seven-day average of deaths could likely increase in the next few days, in part because medical examiners will finish catching up on their work. At the same time, we may start seeing the effect of Thanksgiving travel and gatherings on case counts, the surge many have been fearing. By Christmas and into the New Year, we’ll have a sense of how new cases from Thanksgiving will translate into deaths.
Around that same time, vaccines will start to roll out—in small numbers at first, but hopefully making a substantial difference in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, which have borne the brunt of the pandemic—as we see the worst of this catastrophe and the beginning of its end simultaneously.