By Robert A. Vella
Unemployment claims soared last week to a staggering historical record as Congress nears passage of an equally staggering $2 trillion financial aid bill intended to prevent the U.S. economy from collapsing into depression while science-based efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic continue despite mounting interference from President Trump (see: Anthony Fauci: “You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline” on relaxing public health measures).
Even though the Trump administration’s response to the still worsening public health crisis continues to be erratic and willfully negligent, evidence is emerging that the social isolation measures recommended by medical experts is having localized affects (see: From New York City to St. Augustine, fever charting shows social distancing is ‘breaking the chain’ of coronavirus infections). For example, Kentucky appears to be controlling the contagion by taking proactive measures while its neighbor to the south Tennessee is not. Also, Santa Clara County in California is having similar success while New Orleans, Louisiana is experiencing a surge of COVID-19 cases after its Mardi Gras celebration last month. However, the very weak federal response has put the U.S. on a statistical trajectory to exceed those of the hardest hit nations of China, Italy, and Spain over the next few weeks (see: Tracking coronavirus’ global spread).
The financial aid bill, which was passed yesterday in the Senate and now moves to the House of Representatives, is boosting stock markets and morale across America; but, it is unfortunately not a panacea. Some of its complex provisions are being met with a lot of criticism such as the $500 billion allotted for large corporations in conjunction with massive help from the Federal Reserve (see: Federal Reserve will provide nearly unlimited lending to combat effect of outbreak, Powell says), the logistical problem of getting unemployment benefits to millions of laid-off workers, and the inescapable question of how this drastic increase in the federal budget deficit and national debt will affect the country in the years to come. Still, Congress had no choice but to take strong action. This bill is probably the best it could do given the extremely polarized political environment.
Meanwhile, President Trump isn’t the only demagogue and charlatan who is defying medical recommendations and trying to exploit the crisis for their own self-interest. The presidents of Brazil (Jair Bolsonaro) and Mexico (Andrés Manuel López Obrador) are acting just as irresponsibly. Anti-abortion activists in the U.S. are aggressively exploiting the public health emergency by pressuring state governments to crackdown on women’s reproductive services. Some Christian churches are encouraging large congregations (to refill their coffers, I suspect), and the evangelical Liberty University in Virginia has reopened (apparently, “Jesus” doesn’t care about infecting tens of thousands of students and staff nor about recklessly spreading the virus).
The G20 group of nations are meeting today to discuss how to address the crisis as hospitals and healthcare systems across the globe are being overstressed by the influx of sick people, shortages of necessary supplies and equipment, and insufficient personnel further reduced by doctors and nurses contracting the virus from their patients.
Lastly, I’ve included a very disturbing story on how high-ranking Trump officials stopped a Department of Justice investigation – and likely prosecution – of Walmart concerning criminal distribution of prescription opioids.
The Economy and Congress
WASHINGTON (AP) — Nearly 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week — more than quadruple the previous record set in 1982 — amid a widespread economic shutdown caused by the coronavirus.
The pace of layoffs is sure to accelerate as the U.S. economy sinks into a recession. Revenue has collapsed at restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, gyms, and airlines. Auto sales are plummeting, and car makers have close factories. Most such employers face loan payments and other fixed costs, so they’re cutting jobs to save money.
As job losses mount, some economists say the nation’s unemployment rate could approach 13% by May. By comparison, the highest jobless rate during the Great Recession, which ended in 2009, was 10%.
Facing one of the worst economic downturns in American history, one that is unsparing in its trauma, the Senate late Wednesday unanimously approved a $2 trillion emergency relief bill that attempts to arrest the financial havoc caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The sprawling legislation, which passed 96 to 0, would send checks to more than 150 million American households, set up enormous loan programs for businesses large and small, pump billions of dollars into unemployment insurance programs, greatly boost spending on hospitals, and much more.
The Senate vote sends the bill to the House, where Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) announced a vote to approve it Friday morning. President Trump said he intends to sign it immediately.
About $500 billion can be used to back loans and assistance to companies, including $50 billion for loans to U.S. airlines, as well as state and local governments.
More than $350 billion to aid small businesses.
A $150 billion boost for hospitals and other health-care providers for equipment and supplies.
Direct payments to lower- and middle-income Americans of $1,200 for each adult, as well as $500 for each child. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said checks would be cut April 6.
Unemployment insurance extension to four months, bolstered by $600 weekly. Eligibility would be expanded to cover more workers.
Restrictions on Business Aid
Any company receiving a government loan would be subject to a ban on stock buybacks through the term of the loan plus one additional year. It also would have to limit executive bonuses and take steps to protect workers.
The Treasury Department would have to disclose the terms of loans or other aid to companies, and a new Treasury inspector general would oversee the lending program.
Democrats won language that would bar any business owned by President Donald Trump or his family from getting loans from Treasury. Businesses owned by members of Congress, heads of executive departments and Vice President Mike Pence also would be blocked.
The Public Health Crisis
The death toll in the United States topped 1,000 on Wednesday night as the novel coronavirus continues to spread across the country.
The worldwide death count surpassed 21,000 on Wednesday. [and the number of confirmed cases neared 500,000 – from The Secular Jurist]
Five other countries have death tolls higher than the U.S. — Italy, Spain, Iran, China and France. Italy’s number more than doubles that of Spain.
The U.S. had more than 69,000 confirmed coronavirus cases early , more than every country but China and Italy.
The coronavirus is waging a war of attrition against health care workers throughout the world, but nowhere is it winning more battles at the moment than in Italy and in Spain, where protective equipment and tests have been in severely short supply for weeks.
Spain’s universal health care system is a source of national pride and often hailed as a reason for its citizens’ legendary longevity, but the outbreak is exposing its shortcomings, some of which are the result of years of budget cuts.
The country’s hospitals are groaning under the weight of the pandemic: Video and photos from two hospitals in the Spanish capital showed patients, many hooked up to oxygen tanks, crowding corridors and emergency rooms.
The absence of coherent guidelines from the White House has created a battle among states and hospitals, which have been hooked into bidding wars over key provisions to combat the coronavirus pandemic, driving up their prices and raising worries that regions in desperate need of immediate aid, like New York City, could be squeezed out and patients left to die.
What is not working, political and public health leaders on the front lines say, is the current, scattershot approach which appears to rely on shaky verbal commitments from major companies, which can turn around and shop for higher prices, and rich individuals, who do not have a clear view of where the greatest need for life-saving equipment resides.
Elected officials, like those in New York, have been pleading publicly for President Donald Trump to intervene as the price of medical equipment soars.
The search for resources and provisions has grown increasingly frantic over the past few days, as Trump refuses to exercise his powers under the Defense Production Act, which allows him almost unilateral authority to redirect private industry toward work in the public interest. By leaving the supply chain open to such a wide variety of potential buyers, including the federal government itself, the officials tasked with providing tools to health care workers are being either outbid or overrun by competing interests.
As hospitals around the country prepare for a surge of tens of thousands of coronavirus patients expected in the coming weeks, they are trying to fill thousands of “crisis” nursing jobs nationwide, particularly intensive care unit and emergency room positions.
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, several states were experiencing nursing shortages, and without a dramatic increase in staffing, hospital administrators and advocates fear the health care system will not be able to handle the demand.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) said Tuesday that the city’s intensive care units (ICUs) are at capacity and warned that hospitals in the area could also soon be maximized amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Trump Administration
The three states that President Donald Trump has formally declared coronavirus disaster areas have not received the disaster unemployment assistance that they expected to follow that designation.
The only aid the Trump administration has yet released as a result of the three disaster declarations is for “crisis counseling.” Funds made available through a disaster declaration require separate approval, and are released at the discretion of the executive branch.
The Department of Homeland Security stopped updating its annual models of the havoc that pandemics would wreak on America’s critical infrastructure in 2017, according to current and former DHS officials with direct knowledge of the matter.
From at least 2005 to 2017, an office inside DHS, in tandem with analysts and supercomputers at several national laboratories, produced detailed analyses of what would happen to everything from transportation systems to hospitals if a pandemic hit the United States.
But the work abruptly stopped in 2017 amid a bureaucratic dispute over its value, two of the former officials said, leaving the department flat-footed as it seeks to stay ahead of the impacts the COVID-19 outbreak is having on vast swathes of the U.S. economy. Officials at other agencies have requested some of the reports from the pandemic modeling unit at DHS in recent days, only to find the information they needed scattered or hard to find quickly.
On a Tuesday just before Halloween in 2018, a group of federal prosecutors and agents from Texas arrived in Washington. For almost two years, they’d been investigating the opioid dispensing practices of Walmart, the largest company in the world. They had amassed what they viewed as highly damning evidence only to face a major obstacle: top Trump appointees at the Department of Justice.
The prosecution team had come to Washington to try to save its case. Joe Brown, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, led the group, which included Heather Rattan, an over-20-year veteran of the office who had spent much of her career prosecuting members of drug cartels.
Before the Texas prosecutors could file their case, however, Walmart escalated concerns to high-ranking officials at the DOJ, who then intervened. Brown was ordered to stand down. On Aug. 31, 2018, Trump officials officially informed Walmart that the DOJ would decline to prosecute the company, according to a letter from Walmart’s lawyer that lays out the chronology of the case.