“We sent our young men during World War Two over to Europe, out to the Pacific, knowing, knowing that many of them would not come home alive,” he said, adding: “And we decided to make that sacrifice because what we were standing up for was the American way of life. In the very same way now, we have to stand up for the American way of life.” “Chris Christie pushes to reopen country despite dire Covid-19 projections: ‘There are going to be deaths’” CNN, May 4, 2020.
My birthday has come and gone. I didn’t hear from my father. There were no birthday wishes this year. He died of COVID-19 a month ago. He was in a nursing home. My dad would have been 95 this July, but even at 94 he was not ready to die. He didn’t have cancer, and he had never suffered a heart attack. He did have maladies associated with old age and underlying conditions, but they weren’t fatal. His nursing home had experienced two outbreaks of the flu this past year. Neither killed him. He was dead ten days or so after he tested positive for the virus. At the time he was regularly reading on his iPad, keeping up with the news, and listening to music. He was alert, and the staff continually commented on how intelligent, how sharp he was. He could have lived longer. He’s buried in the veterans section of a cemetery in Chris Christie’s home state of New Jersey.
Christie thinks people will die because of the virus, but nevertheless we must reopen the country for economic reasons.* There are those who say that people don’t die of the virus. They die with the virus. In other words, the people dying would have died anyway. Why would anyone make this claim? There appear to be two reasons: 1) they feel their individual liberty is being restricted by regulations to stem the spread of the virus, and 2) they want the economy opened, just like Christie.** If those who died would have died anyway, then why not just reopen?
The evidence doesn’t support this claim. Aside from abundant anecdotal evidence that there are many dying before their time, we now have two studies that back this up. As a matter of fact, even very old and very sick people could have lived longer. Those who were younger had years, if not decades, tragically torn from their lives. (See chart below.)***
This leads to a wider question. While the claim that “people would have died anyway” might be seen as on the fringe, you often hear how we must reopen the economy. The economic losses and pain are too much too bear. People must go back to work asap. We take risks all of the time. Economic rewards require risk, etc.
But whose pain? Whose losses? Whose risks? The workers we call essential are still working, risking their lives often for low wages. The unemployed and underemployed? Yes, they are being hurt or will be hurt. But why? Other countries have found a way to cover the paychecks of unemployed workers by reimbursing employers, often at close to full salary. Their jobs will be waiting for them. These countries also offer healthcare to all of their citizens, even in non-pandemic times. Why is the supposedly richest country on earth unable to do either of these? And why can’t we do a better job at protecting our small businesses? No doubt too much of the support that the government offered has gone, once again, to large corporations.
There are people other than workers losing money, but these people will run virtually no risk if we reopen. Who are they? The people who make money off of the labor of others. Let’s call them capitalists. (We can leave aside here the finance and Wall Street types who have ways of making money even when unemployment and underemployment skyrockets. They have access to large sums of money to play with, often provided by our Wall Street friendly Fed.)
You hear from these capitalists, and their lackeys in government, how we must get people back to work. Their tone is that of old-fashioned Calvinists, who viewed work as a calling, as a mission. Work can involve a calling, but in our day it is often the kind of work that you can do at home on a computer while sipping a latte. But for many Americans work is a job, which you have to do to survive. Yet, if you were to listen to these capitalists you would come away thinking that if you are not committed to your work and working, you are morally depraved.
Funny how well the notion that not working is morally depraved, even in a pandemic, just happens to coincide with the interests of people who make money off of the labor of others. I wonder how many of their kids or spouses are being forced into risky situations because, after all, not working is morally depraved? (Note in passing: Christie’s wife has been an investment banker.)
To get an idea of how pathological our system has become with regard to work, consider the following, which was posted on Vermont’s Department of Labor web site:
Refusal to Return to Work: COVID-19
The Department of Labor reminds unemployment claimants who have been placed on temporary layoff or furlough related to COVID-19 that they must return to work if called back by their employer. Refusal to return to work, when being offered the normal rate of pay and number of hours per week, may result in the termination of unemployment benefits and the need to repay certain benefits.
Action for Employers
If you are an employer that has offered regular work, at the same number of hours and rate of pay that they were working prior to COVID-19, to an employee that was temporarily laid-off or furloughed, and the employee has refused to return to work, you MUST report this activity to the Department of Labor. (Emphases in the original.)
And here’s a less bureaucratic formulation from Missouri’s governor, Mike Parson:
“When we open the state up, if you’ve got to go back to work, if your boss calls and says you have to go back to work, you have to go back to work,” he said last week.
If you have been on unemployment insurance, and the company you were working for offers your job back, you must go back to work. If you don’t, the default assumption is that you will lose your unemployment insurance. There are ways to challenge this default assumption, which vary from state to state, if you have an approved reason to be granted an exemption, for example, having the virus or caring for a family member who does. But in terms of risks to workers, the liberal state of Vermont notes that workers “may still be eligible for benefits” if there is “an unreasonable risk of exposure at place of employment.” You can bet that the may will weigh heavily here. And what constitutes an “unreasonable risk?” If workers cannot demonstrate that there is an “unreasonable risk,” then they must work or no unemployment insurance, and no food on the table. It’s as simple as that for many Americans. But you can bet what will not be simple is proving that a workplace is unsafe in order to continue receiving unemployment insurance.****
Now also consider the following:
In announcing that the Senate will return on May 4, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said on Monday there was an “urgent need” to enact legislation to shield businesses from pandemic-related legal liability if they reopen, citing the risk of “years of endless lawsuits” arising from “a massive tangle of federal and state laws.” “Businesses Seek Sweeping Shield From Pandemic Liability Before They Reopen,” NY Times, April 28.
In other words, businesses may not be safe, but forget suing them if McConnell and business lobbyists get their way. What does this mean for workers?
Labor leaders reject the effort entirely. Mary Kay Henry, the president of the Service Employees International Union, said employers were still sometimes failing to provide personal protective equipment to workers, and she called the liability-limitation push “inhumane.”
“This is a discussion from corporations and employers that are shirking their employees on the front lines of the pandemic,” Ms. Henry said. “They’re now going to try, as they infect people, to shirk any legal responsibility for it?” NY Times, April 28, 2020
No doubt in some form this legislation will pass, because, “Mr. McConnell suggested that the liability issue would need to be resolved before Congress provided any additional financial relief to states, teeing up a big fight over the next aid package” (NY Times, April 28, 2020). So, workers will find themselves being forced to work in situations that could lead to permanent health issues or death (or risk the lives of family members by infecting them with the virus), and they won’t be able to sue if they have been harmed. Welcome to 21st century indentured servitude, American style.
And while this is going on, the investors, owners, and executives of these companies will have enough capital to hire financial advisers to invest their money and make more money. They will continue to live securely, with all their creature comforts, experiencing little in the way of hardship from the pandemic. But America must get back to work…..
In this light, those who seem to be on the fringe—claiming that people are not dying of the virus, but with the virus—don’t look quite so out of place in the America of 2020. Because, you see, in practice, while they provide a misguided rationale for why we shouldn’t be concerned about the virus, thereby putting people in grave danger, the oligarchs and corporate merchants of work are also putting people in grave danger. But instead of producing the rationale that lives will not be shortened, because those who die would have died anyway, they simply say, people will die. Those are the breaks. But you have to work. Take one for Team America.
Moral of the story: American capitalism is officially pathological. Other countries will start avoiding it, well, like the plague.
* “Christie told Bash that ‘we’ve got to let some of these folks get back to work, because if we don’t, we’re going to destroy the American way of life in these families — and it will be years and years before we can recover.’ His comments Monday echoed similar characterizations by other Republicans — including President Donald Trump — that the economic impact of coronavirus is just as devastating to the nation as the virus itself.” “Chris Christie pushes to reopen country despite dire Covid-19 projections: ‘There are going to be deaths’ CNN, May 4, 2020.
** These two “reasons” are closely connected. Our ideas about individual freedom are informed by the ways in which American capitalism promotes the notion that we should be able to buy and sell what we want, when we want, and this becomes an important factor in how Americans understand their rights. But this is a subject for another article. See, “Live Free and Die: America’s Freedom of Choice Cult, “ UP@NIGHT, May 21, 2020.
*** “Would most covid-19 victims have died soon, without the virus? A new study suggests not,” The Economist, May, 2, 2020.
**** Some states may be more generous than others in enforcing guidelines established by Federal Law, and as noted, there is a possibility that under certain circumstances people can remain on unemployment insurance. However, these are limited, and you can bet that in practice, they will not be applied evenly or even regularly.
General concern about exposure to coronavirus is typically not a sufficient enough reason to stay home and continue collecting benefits, according to a recent guidance from the US Department of Labor.
However, some people could remain eligible for unemployment under a special pandemic program Congress created that allows those who were advised by a health provider to self-quarantine or who are caring for children whose schools have closed, for example, to qualify for benefits.
Still, states may interpret the guideline somewhat differently, experts said. “Laid-off workers may have to give up unemployment benefits as states reopen” CNN, April 29.
Regarding the unemployment situation in the United States in relationship to other countries, “What’s striking is that the countries with the smallest increases in unemployment have something in common. Their governments have put in place sweeping programs that directly pay companies to retain their workers.” “The Fight to Save Jobs.” New York Times, May 15, 2020. Chart below is from the article.
Illustration, from The Internationalists. (Use of illustrations on UP@NIGHT should not be viewed as an endorsement of any organization.)