Schrödinger’s Plague

Featured Image: Theodor Severin Kittelsen, She Is Making Her Way Through the Country (1900)

On April 16 Governor Phil Murphy said he would be “the happiest guy, if not in New Jersey, maybe in America or on the planet” if we re-opened by June 1.  On April 27 he gave us a six-point plan for gradually reopening the state after, among other benchmarks, a sustained 14-day downtrend in new cases and hospitalizations. Three days later we marked our highest death toll to date, 458.  For the time being we remain in our boxes, neither alive nor dead until the statistics can be adequately measured. 

Today about 70% of America — some 236 million people — is trapped with us in lockdown limbo. Many are chafing at the new restrictions.  On April 30 armed protestors shouting anti-government slogans gathered at the Michigan Capitol Building. Stillwater, Oklahoma was forced to amend its mask ordinance after numerous store employees were threatened by people refusing to cover their noses and mouths.  New York and New Jersey have been challenged throughout this ordeal by Hasidic Jews refusing to comply with social distancing orders. If it is unclear how long the Great Time-Out will go on, it is equally unclear how long it can go on.

tyrants get the rope
Michigan, April 30, 2020. Photo by Craig D. Mauer

Epidemics don’t come cheap.  The March 25 stimulus package cost an estimated $2.2 trillion dollars.  Social distancing and business shutdowns have had an enormous impact on state tax revenues.  Fears of contamination have hit the restaurant and entertainment industries hard.  Those who got their stimulus checks were able to pay some past-due bills.  Those able to get through to a real person or a functioning website got some help from unemployment.  But even they found their finances stretched as the weeks dragged on and the pantry became increasingly bare.  And as the disease abates, many will discover that the new normal no longer includes their old jobs.

In 2018 10.9 million American renters spent over half their income on rent and utilities:  30 million spent over 30%.  As we head toward our second month in quarantine, a growing number of renters find themselves out of funds: by the third month they may be out of personal items to sell. Many unable to pay have chosen to organize.  And while the federal government offers a 180-day forbearance for those holding federally backed mortgages, it simply “encourages” other lenders to work with borrowers impacted by COVID-19.  Those borrowers with uncooperative lenders, and those relying on their tenants to help with the mortgage, may lose their homes.

When Andrew Yang proposed his $1,000/month “Freedom Dividend” for every American adult, it was largely dismissed as an unrealistic publicity stunt. Today even Nancy Pelosi thinks Universal Basic Income “could be worthy of attention.” This newfound interest in UBI is rooted more in fear than generosity.  Thanks to coronavirus 30.3 million Americans, or 18.6% of the workforce, have filed unemployment claims.  If and when state unemployment funds run dry — and they are already running dry — we will need some way of keeping the citizens peaceful.

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When asked by a reporter on April 30,  “Have you seen anything at this point that gives you a high degree of confidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the origin of this virus?” Donald Trump replied “Yes, I have.  Yes, I have.” Intelligence officials quickly responded that it was “highly unlikely” that the coronavirus had originated at the Wuhan lab and reiterated the official Chinese position that it had developed at a local “wet market.”  Other Chinese officials and journalists have suggested that COVID-19 originated in the United States, and even that it was deliberately released in China as a bioweapon.

We may never know exactly how COVID-19 originated and spread.  What we know may be less important than what people believe. We have pumped an awful lot of money into propping up the economy and when that bill comes due we’re going to be feeling a whole lot of pain.  Experts predict the post-Coronavirus crash will rival the Great Depression.  One traditional remedy for a depression is a war. A hungry, jobless, plague-scarred nation is an angry nation.  And since China’s economy has been hit as hard as ours, we may well see two nations who built their economies trading rebuild them with blood.

The Belt and Road Initiative has made clear China’s desire to expand their influence throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe.  Even before COVID-19 the Chinese were challenging the exclusivity of the Petrodollar.  Should the Petrodollar fall — and it is already tottering — we will see a sharp drop in demand for US dollars and a corresponding glut of currency and hyperinflation.  This famously happened last century in Weimar Germany, and we all know how that turned out.   

screen capture Braveheart Fart

The death tolls are dropping in New York and New Jersey.  We may soon be in a place to count the final cost of this first wave.  Other states will soon feel what they have only witnessed on screens.  Most will be spared the carnage we have endured: as a densely populated region with several large international airports we were doomed from the start.  Many of you are chafing at heavy-handed orders when you might listen to polite and reasonable suggestions.  To that end, here are some suggestions from an eyewitness on what to do when Corona-Chan comes to your neck of the woods.

Your first efforts should focus on nursing homes, assisted living facilities and long-term care facilities. While we still have much to learn about the COVID-19 virus, we know that it especially lethal to the elderly.  Up to half the coronavirus deaths in Europe and in New Jersey have been at senior care facilities.  You may want to do Grandma’s errands for her instead of letting her risk exposure.  In New Jersey many stores have offered special early hours reserved for elderly and immunocompromised shoppers: you may want to encourage your local businesses to follow their lead.

While the jury is still out on how effective masks are, there is a consensus that they do more to protect others than the wearer.  They are most useful in enclosed spaces and close crowds.  Masks are not a silver bullet that will stop COVID-19 but there is some evidence they will slow the transmission of disease.  Masks are not a sign of submission, they are a sign of social concern.  While they may not required for day-to-day life in more sparsely populated and less hard-hit areas, masks in crowded workplaces — and on-demand testing so that workers with COVID-19 can self-quarantine as quickly as possible — may be the difference between a few dozen and a few hundred deaths.

Many of you fear these measures will be abused in the future.  Your fears are entirely justified.  Many of you think your government cares more about the stock market and big donors than about the American people.  You are absolutely right.  Right now the United States, like other countries around the world, has been badly wounded and faces both a financial crisis and a crisis of legitimacy.  As things go from bad to worse, it is likely the American establishment will try to maintain power by any means necessary.

As China continues its long march forward, the West grows increasingly skeptical about globalism.  The European Union’s lackluster response to the pandemic has left many Europeans feeling uncharitable toward unelected bureaucrats.  Trump’s unpredictable and divided messages have led various state governors to form coalitions of their own. This coming economic crisis will likely reshape the world and redraw boundaries.  World War I  toppled the Habsburg, Russian and Ottoman Empires.  It remains to be seen which great powers will survive the Coronavirus Crash, which will fall, and what will rise from the ashes.  

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