By Godwin Nnanna, Special Correspondent, in New York
For many Americans, life as they know it, is on pause. Covid-19 is changing how Americans live their daily lives and proving to be a health and wealth crisis like no other. In states like New York, the number of confirmed cases doubles every three days. Conferences, tournaments, sport leagues, television shows with live audience, flight schedules, religious meetings are being postponed or cancelled all together. Schools are closed all over the country as many explore remote learning alternatives. Long lines and barren shelves are now regular features in supermarkets across the country as the fear of future shortages push consumers into a frenzy of panic buying. Worried shoppers are stripping America’s supermarket shelves bare. Supermarkets now ration the sale of toilet rolls and other essentials.
For Donald Trump, a president long caught up in the exuberance of a rising stock market and a strong economy, the coronavirus-induced plunge is nightmare. In two weeks, the Dow Jones went from a historic peak of 30,000 to an epic crash of 18,000 wiping out every gain recorded in the three years of the Trump administration. Unemployment surged to unprecedented highs last week as 3.28 million Americans filed for unemployment claims shattering decades-old record in jobless claims. Restaurants, bars, airlines, automakers, hotels, entertainment and cruise lines companies are the hardest hit. Just a month prior, the US unemployment rate was 3.5 percent, a 50 year low.
Trump is getting hammered by millions of dollars in campaign advertisements by Democrats who are painting his response to Covid-19 as poor and inept. Efforts by Democrats to impeach him last month failed woefully. Now it looks like coronavirus might do for them what the 235 Democrats in the house couldn’t do. For a president who often sees the market as a real-time political barometer directly linked to developments in Washington, the coronavirus-induced plunge in the market portends a gloomy prognosis for his reelection in November. Trumpism’s bragging rights are sound economy and ‘merit-based’ immigration. Trump prides on his ability to deliver to America the best economy possible. Until last month, he was well on his way to doing that, but now the Make America Great Again (MAGA) train is in an unchartered territory with a recession in view.
A pandemic and a national crisis
As at Thursday morning, at least 69,210 cases have been confirmed in the US with death toll at 1,031 fatalities according to the Center for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC). Expect the figures to change before you finish reading this story. That’s how fast change is happening with the coronavirus since it hit the United States. “We have not yet reached our peak” immunologist Anthony Fauci, a member of President Trump’s task force on coronavirus, said early this week. The CDC urges Americans and local health officials to prepare for significant impacts to their daily lives as the virus continues to spread across the country.
The CDC projects that 65 percent of Americans could be infected with the virus in a worst-case scenario. In this hypothetical scenario, as many as 21 million people could be hospitalized and up to 1.7 million people die. “That’s a worst-case scenario that is very unlikely to come true with the concerted efforts currently in place to tackle the virus,” says Dr Emeka Nwaokorie, a Nigerian American physician in New York. “What we are doing in New York right now is to find, isolate, test and treat every case to break the chains of transmission,” explains Nwokorie.
CDC notes that the virus spreads mainly from person-to-person through close contact and through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. A person can get Covid-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.
“The United States nationally is currently in the initiation phases, but states where community spread is occurring are in the acceleration phase,” states CDC. “The duration and severity of each phase can vary depending on the characteristics of the virus and the public health response,” the agency explains. Some experts warn that infected persons without symptoms might be driving the spread of coronavirus more widely than is thought to exist presently. “Asymptomatic and mildly symptomatic transmission are a major factor in transmission for Covid-19,” notes William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University professor and an adviser to the CDC. “They’re going to be the drivers of spread in the community.”
Schools avoid in-person classes
As coronavirus rates continue to rise, state and local governments, institutions and agencies continue to clamp down on large public gatherings. In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker has banned any gathering of more than 10 people. At least 21 states including New York and California have strict stay at home order for residents ensuring that more than 50% of the US population is caught up in some kind of government imposed quarantine.
In Harvard, where the president Larry Bacow and his wife tested positive to coronavirus, the campus is a ghost town. Students were forced out of their dorms last week. The prestigious university announced its first case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, on March 13, days after announcing that it was moving all classes online. For the first time in its history, Harvard will host a virtual commencement on the original date of May 28 so that everyone will graduate as expected, according to Bacow.
Boston University, MIT, Columbia University, Yale, Cornel and more than 90 percent of universities in the US are closed to all in-person classes. Harvard transitioned to online classes on Monday out of an abundance of caution. “We are doing this not just to protect you but also to protect other members of our community who may be more vulnerable to this disease than you are,” Bacow said in an email announcing the decision.
Globally, the UN warns that an unprecedented number of children, youth and adults are not attending schools presently because of COVID-19. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) notes that governments in 49 countries have announced or implemented the closure of educational institutions to slow the spread of the disease. “29 countries have closed schools nationwide, impacting almost 391.5 million children and youth. A further 20 countries have implemented localized school closures and, should these closures become nationwide, hundreds of millions of additional learners will experience education disruption,” writes the agency.
An unprecedented palliative
Early Thursday morning, the US senate approved a $2 trillion stimulus deal. The relief package is expected to jolt an economy reeling from the coronavirus pandemic. It is the largest emergency aid deal in US history. Not even the famous New Deal instituted by President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s for relief, reform, and recovery from the Great Depression is close.
A key provision of the stimulus deal is that every American adult with tax number earning $75,000 or less will get $1,200 free money from government. Every child will get $500. The benefit would start decreasing at a rate of $5 for every additional $100 in income. The phase-out starts at $75,100 in adjusted gross income for singles, $112,500 for heads of household, and $150,000 for married couples filing jointly. It phases out entirely by $99,000 for singles and $198,000 for couples without children.
Direct payment into individual accounts is expected to begin early April as the US House of Representatives is expected to approve the bill on Friday. This would not be the first time the U.S. government has handed out free money to Americans. During the Great Recession, the Internal Revenue Service sent almost every adult $300 to $600 through direct deposits or paper checks. The stimulus will also extend unemployment insurance to four months, a benefit that would be bolstered by $600 weekly and would expand eligibility to cover more workers. There are also juicy incentives for business that provides money for them to pay their workers’ wages even as they comply with the stay-at-home order.
Wait for summer heat?
Trump has said that the virus will abate by April as cold weather give way to warmer weather. Could that be true? Drawing from the experience of SARS, a similar health crisis in 2003, Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch, writes that “SARS did not die of natural causes.” Lipsitch insists “It was killed by extremely intense public health interventions in mainland Chinese cities, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand, Canada and elsewhere.” There’s currently no known cure for Covid-19. While scientists continue to research possible solutions, experts project it might not be until 2021 before a breakthrough in vaccine.
Covid-19 is war for the Trump administration, but nothing like the conventional wars previous administrations fought in Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam. Coronavirus goes against human nature – and against American instincts and way of life. Although reported cases so far are still less than 100,000 in a country of more than 300 million, the psychological effects are taking a toll on the administration and the American people. For President Trump, the battle is just beginning. “We are marshaling the full power of the federal government and the private sector to protect the American people,” he said last week while declaring a state of emergency.
The US economy has an impressive track record of predicting the next president, if history is any indication. How well the economy rebounds – if at all – may go a long way to determine whether Trump remains in the White House after November this year. Stock losses may continue to steepen in the coming days. However, as market strategist Ryan Detrick puts it – “the big question now is how quickly can this be contained? Given the evolving nature of Covid-19, ‘how quick’ is exactly one question no one can precisely answer right now.