Unsanitized: Lack of Economic Relief Is Costing Lives

Unsanitized: Lack of Economic Relief Is Costing Lives

A waiter wears a protective face mask as serve customers outdoors amid the coronavirus pandemic on June 12, 2020 in Bethesda, Maryland. (Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

This article is adapted from Unsanitized: The Election Daily Report put out by The American Prospect. You can find the original publication here.

First Response

Days after the election, Mitch McConnell publicly stated that the lame duck session was the time for a coronavirus relief package to assist the American people in a time of growing need. That was right before the November jobs report, when he remarked that the (actually not all that) positive numbers reinforced his preference of making that assistance targeted at those who need it.

To my knowledge that was the last time McConnell has mentioned this at all. Instead of putting anything on economic relief up for a vote in the Senate, the past two weeks have been the usual parade of roll call votes on judicial nominations, along with one doomed attempt to confirm Judy Shelton to the Federal Reserve (I wrote up that saga, which is very much about coronavirus: in short, Republican nonchalance about the virus cost them the opportunity to fill this seat). McConnell surely knew in advance he wasn’t going to get Shelton confirmed yesterday, although it was clarifying to him to see how close the vote would be. But this could have been time spent hammering out a deal.

We have some confirmation that no time has been spent in that manner, from Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. They’re requesting McConnell’s presence in negotiations, something he has not done previously. Their main point, of course, is that the coronavirus is raging through the country right now, particularly in Republican areas. With Republican leaders finally relenting on restrictions to prevent the spread, monetary relief is needed more than ever. Add on top of that key measures that will expire as the lame duck session expires: the eviction moratorium, the freeze on student loan payments, and unemployment benefits for an estimated 12 million Americans.

There’s no ambiguity over what to do, but McConnell holds the key to actually doing it. The federal coronavirus task force just yesterday told Vice President Pence that we’re on track for 2,000 Americans dying every day in short order, and that the best mitigation measure to prevent an overwhelming of the health system is to close bars and in-person restaurants from serving customers.

We’ve known this for months, and studies have backed it up (A CDC study shows COVID patients in one sample twice as likely to have eaten at a restaurant recently). But states have made only halting attempts, preferring to reduce capacity rather than shut everything down. The reason why is obvious, as Annie Lowrey explains: the government has provided no support to these establishments, or to the states and cities that rely on sales tax revenue from them. Without the assurance of compensation, bars and restaurants forced to close again will simply cease to exist. There’s not even a Paycheck Protection Program, which was too meager the first time around and didn’t prevent businesses from failing, as a bridge until the danger passes.

The saddest thing about this is that this time we really do need a bridge, albeit one that lasts about six months. Positive signs on vaccines (more on that below) have put an actual time limit on federal aid. The problem with the CARES Act was that it was temporary, too temporary to be of use when the real hazards would emerge in the fall. Now we have a completely different situation, where we need a temporary set of massive support until we get everyone vaccinated and crush the virus.

In the absence of that, policymakers are putting economic sustainability ahead of public safety. They have little choice, because the alternative is total ruin, which would have its own health impact. Small businesses have to keep operating as death traps because they can’t shut down and lose their livelihoods. Workers have to come in and do their jobs despite the hazards, as there’s no boosted unemployment left. Cities can’t demand a total closure, or at least are resisting it, because they have no other source of revenue coming in. “Economic stimulus is a neglected and under-utilized public health tool,” as Lowrey writes.

We know from the summer that states reliant on sales tax revenue reopened prematurely from the spring lockdowns, leading to the second wave of cases. The third wave is much, much worse than the second. And yet we sit with nothing. Mitch McConnell has been described by less formal political commentators as something like a merchant of death. By denying stimulus, in this case he is literally one.

Vaccine News

As noted above, what makes the death march right now so painful is the good news on the scientific side. Pfizer released another round of data showing that their vaccine is safe as well as effective. In fact, it raised the effectiveness rate to 95 percent, on par with the Moderna vaccine. The Phase 3 trial still needs peer review, but regardless, you can expect an emergency use authorization request from Pfizer “within days,” and probably not much longer for Moderna.

The Food and Drug Administration has scheduled meetings for a vaccine advisory group for three days in early December, where the topic of discussion is expected to be the vaccines. I would expect an authorization coming out of those meetings, if all goes well. That’s only the beginning of this process, which as I’ve seen is the biggest logistical undertaking known to mankind. The manufacturing, transportation, and distribution to every corner of the globe will require unprecedented precision and coordination. Still, it’s far more hopeful to worry about getting the vaccine to everyone than to worry about having a vaccine.

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