The argument over whether or not to extend stay-at-home orders has reached a crescendo after weeks of COVID-19 cloistering — combined with scant assistance from the federal government — and left millions forced to choose between their money and their lives. Many people need cash after weeks without working; those people want and need to work, but many of those people don’t want to die for work.
If Congress and Donald Trump were to act with the powers at their disposal — a national testing program (finally!), serious and sustained financial assistance for more than large companies, ramped-up production of protective gear — those fears would not be nearly so acute. Likewise, if the federal government had acted months ago to contain this thing with speed and vigor, many of those fears would be allayed.
That is not the country we live in, however. The abject failure to contain COVID-19 has left us with only one option: “mitigation” — containing the damage through hand-washing, social distancing, mass closures of schools and businesses, stay-at-home orders, masks in public, and full self-quarantine if exposed. The other option — let the virus “burn through” and take the old and ill to their “natural conclusions” — is advocacy for mass murder in order to “save” the economy.
The people, by a vast margin, prefer the former option. Recent polling puts public support for continuing the stay-at-home orders at a staggering 76 percent. The minority percentage of “Re-open Now” supporters, represented by some armed protesters here and there and the people flooding some California beaches, amount to less than a quarter of the population.
People are wise to be wary. COVID-19 has proven itself to be a wily foe that attacks on whatever front makes it easiest to kill its host: Pneumonia in the lungs, kidney failure, strokes, blood clots are all in play when a person is infected. There are more than 1.1 million confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S., with over 68,000 confirmed fatalities.
Yet those infection numbers are almost certainly lower than the actual infection rate. This clever viral predator also affects people without ever showing symptoms, leaving infected asymptomatic people to unknowingly walk the world spraying the virus into the wind, or the crowd, or both. Early, incomplete but telling antibody tests in places like New York have shown thousands have been infected without being affected, making them stealth vectors for the spread of the pandemic.
It is within this frightening and uncertain context that the debate over reopening the economy is unfolding. State governments in Georgia, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Florida, and elsewhere are barnstorming toward fully reopening their states’ economies, even as the disease begins its long burn through those populations. Some 40 states, according to CNN’s Monday morning broadcast, will soon have reopened at least a portion of their economies and public gathering spaces.
Most states still lack any significant testing regimen. Virtually every medical professional involved — including Trump’s two hostages, Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx — have loudly insisted that reopening too soon is a deeply perilous, even reckless endeavor. Trump has consistently blown past such warnings in his rush to restart the economy and salvage his cratering re-election hopes, and has embraced the fringe “Re-Open” protesters.
Economist Robert Reich has distilled Trump’s actions regarding reopening the national economy to a chilling four-point plan: Remove income support, so people have no choice but to return to work; hide the facts; pretend it’s about “freedom”; and shield businesses against lawsuits for spreading the infection. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is hard at work on the first and last items, while Trump handles the rest.
In many of these states where stay-at-home strictures are being lifted, however, the people themselves don’t appear to be cooperating. Acts of flagrant disobedience of safe-spacing requests find their way onto the nightly news broadcasts, but millions more are voting with their feet and staying home. A recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll has 85 percent of people opposing the idea of reopening schools, 80 percent opposing the reopening of sit-down service at restaurants, and 65 percent opposing a mass return to work.
This has created an excruciating and escalating crisis, because again, many people want and often need to work. The $1,200 one-time sop offered by Congress didn’t reach many of the people who need it most, and in any event, that sum is triflingly insulting given the assistance millions will need over the many, many months this pandemic is expected to be with us.
If you’re not forced to work outside the home in this moment, please join me in placing yourself in the shoes of a grocery store worker making minimum wage. The TV people call you a hero, but you’re only working in a building with a high chance of contagion because you cannot live without the paycheck. What you count on most for your own safety is the responsible behavior of others. If everyone plays it safe, the chance of them carrying COVID-19 into your store is diminished. With states throwing their doors open without sufficient testing, the odds of your becoming infected at work increase dramatically. Yet you have to work.
There are solutions to this dilemma. Mass testing (which Trump won’t do because he does not want the country to know how sick it is), combined with New Deal-style assistance from Congress (which McConnell will not allow because it is ideologically unsound), will give the people the informational and financial cushion they need to weather this long storm.
In the absence of this common-sense approach, the people are being forced deeper and deeper into an impossible and dangerous situation. To date, a majority of us have decided to stay safe, and those who have to work in the stores and the hospitals while under threat are counting on us to keep it up.
We are witnessing the beginning of a wholly organic mass movement. People are staying home, in defiance of their governors and the president himself, because science says that is what must happen. We do this to protect and defend the people who can’t stay home, who feed us and care for us when we are sick. The pain of it is increasing, but that pain will be overshadowed by the agonies to come if we allow COVID-19 to spike again, and again, and again.
The path to that nightmare is straight: reopening states too soon. And right now is far too soon. With states and the federal government failing them, the people are sitting down and saying “No.”
It is one of many indications that this country will be a far different place when this is finished. In the near term, that resistance may be the only tool people have to force Trump, McConnell and the “Re-Open” governors to do what must be done.
“Your money or your life” is the calling card of bank robbers, not responsible democratic governments. The people deserve better choices, and until they have them, many who can afford to do so appear to be going nowhere but the home office or the couch. In this, they labor to rescue themselves and their country from a pandemic, and from the “leaders” who let it happen the way it has.