Building American Resilience: A Roadmap for Recovery After COVID-19
For Americans and much of the world, 2020 has been an annus horribilis. Following its outbreak in China late last year, the coronavirus has spread quickly across the main international travel and trade routes. To contain the pandemic, nations have been forced to order mass quarantines, freezing economic activity and social life. It likely will take decades to calculate the full human, economic and psychic costs of this still-unfolding global calamity.
Few countries have been spared the ravages of Covid-19, but no country has been hit harder than the United States. At this writing, coronavirus has killed more than 156,000 Americans, and infected more than 4.6 million. And with the pandemic spreading rapidly across the South, West and Midwest – 39 states report sharp increases in infections – the end is nowhere in sight.
Stay-at-home orders and social distancing have put the world’s biggest economy on life support. After shrinking by 5 percent in the first quarter of 2020, U.S. output plunged by nearly 10 percent in the second quarter. Since March, more than 42 million Americans have filed for unemployment and nearly 20 million are still out of work. As many as 40- percent of the virus-related layoffs could become permanent, according to a University of Chicago study.
Many small businesses have gone under, and millions more are treading water. “Data from credit-card processors suggest that roughly 30 percent of small businesses have shut down during the pandemic,” reports The Atlantic. And many large companies in sectors hit directly by social distancing – travel and tourism, restaurants and hotels, and brick and mortar retail – have announced layoffs and permanent workforce reductions.
The federal government has borrowed and spent prodigiously to combat the virus, put money in peoples’ pockets and keep the economy from cratering. Congress so far has passed three major relief bills and is wrestling over the scope of a fourth. Washington has spent $3 trillion and could be headed toward a staggering annual deficit of $5 trillion or more, the largest since World War II. Amid this unprecedented public health and economic crisis, an old American dilemma – racial injustice – has reared its head. The unconscionable killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other black Americans by police has triggered widespread public outrage and protests.
THE CRISIS IN U.S. DEMOCRACY
Intensifying all three of these traumatic shocks is a catastrophic failure of national leadership. In past crises, leaders of extraordinary skill and character have arisen to steer our republic through the storm. Not this time. President Donald Trump has run the ship of state aground.
As the coronavirus first appeared, he sought refuge in denial and dissembling. When that did nothing to halt the spread of the virus, he passed the buck to governors and refused to mobilize the full powers of the federal government to supply tests, masks and ventilators, and to help the states set up rigorous contact tracing systems. Learning nothing from his early blunders, Trump has continued to dismiss the severity of the virus, tout phony cures, and demand premature openings of the economy and schools.
Trump’s incompetence cost our country precious weeks when the federal government should have been taking vigorous action to contain the pandemic. The delay was deadly: Had we started social distancing and locking down on March 1 rather than March 14, 54,000 fewer Americans would have died, according to disease modelers at Columbia University.
Elections really do matter. If the United States had elected leaders as capable as those in Germany, South Korea and Japan, many fewer Americans would be getting sick and dying today. And with contact tracing, masks and selective social distancing, we could keep more of our economy up and running.
As demonstrations against police brutality and racial discrimination flare up around the country, Trump again has displayed a perverse talent for inciting social rancor and pitting Americans against each other. He has smeared protesters as “domestic terrorists” and, over the protests of Mayors and Governors, dispatched unbadged federal security guards to put down the phantom threat of mass anarchy in the streets.
Finally, with a crucial national election approaching, Trump is trying to deny Americans the right to vote safely at home. He’s falsely crying fraud to undermine public confidence in the legitimacy of our electoral system, even to the point of issuing a preposterous call to postpone the vote.
No wonder America’s nerves are frayed. At this fateful moment of intersecting crises – threatening our health, prosperity and cultural cohesion – our country is saddled with a dishonest, incompetent and malicious demagogue who specializes in creating chaos rather than solving problems. Here and abroad, the impression is growing that America is becoming a failed state.
DON’T COUNT AMERICA OUT
But that’s wrong. For all our dilemmas, America remains a resourceful and dynamic country capable of swift course corrections. Beneath our fractious politics lies a bedrock of shared belief in liberty, equality and democracy. We also draw strength from a diverse and inventive citizenry jealous of its freedoms. Time and again, this country has shown it can bounce back from adversity stronger than before. Now we have to reinvent ourselves again.
Fortunately, there is a national election this fall. The American people can fire a sham president and his cowed GOP lackeys and replace them with genuine leaders who can unite us and make our democracy work.
But new leaders also need a new vision.
The United States has received a series of extraordinary shocks in this still-young century: the dot-com bust, 9/11, the great recession and financial meltdown of 2007-8, and now coronavirus, a hobbled economy and civil strife over endemic racism.
We’ve learned the hard way that our country needs stronger economic and social shock absorbers. Our challenge isn’t just to recover from the present crisis, but to build a better, more equitable democracy that will be more resilient against future shocks no one can foresee.
Americans have made enormous sacrifices to save lives and keep our health system and economy from collapsing. Many have stood by helplessly as friends and relatives have died lonely deaths in isolation. The psychological toll also has been heavy: Research by The Society for Human Resource Management finds that one in four workers report feeling either hopeless or depressed. If U.S. leaders don’t emerge from this painful period resolved to build a more just and resilient society, this suffering and sacrifice will have been in vain.
CONFRONTING ENTRENCHED INEQUITIES
The fight against Covid-19 has not been borne equally by all Americans. Health care and emergency workers and those in “essential” industries (such as meatpacking and grocery stores) have been exposed to higher risks of falling ill. The chief victims of Covid-19, by far, are older Americans. Thus far, 43 percent of deaths have been linked to nursing homes.
The pandemic also has taken a severe toll on low-income and minority communities, where many suffer from health problems associated with poverty and discrimination. African-Americans are dying from Covid-19 at a rate nearly twice as large as their share of the population. At this writing, blacks (13 percent of the U.S. population) account for 24 percent of all deaths.
The economic pain inflicted by the pandemic also has been unevenly distributed.
The lockdown, in fact, has exposed a new class divide in America. On one side are office workers, mostly college-educated, well-paid and digitally enabled, who have been able to keep working from home, and to have food and other goods delivered to them. On the other side are low-paid service, hospitality and retail workers, who can’t work remotely. Young workers, immigrants and Hispanic workers have been hit hardest by Covid-19 job losses.
Minority-owned businesses, often smaller and more precarious, have been damaged disproportionately by the pandemic. The National Bureau of Economic Research reports that, between February and April, there was a 41 percent decrease in black business owners and a 31 percent decrease in Latinx business owners, compared to an overall decline of 22 percent.
The pandemic also has exposed serious weaknesses in our private economy. Because of offshoring and long supply chains, for example, U.S. factories were unable to supply masks, gowns, gloves and ventilators in a timely way to health care workers desperately battling the virus.
Key public sector systems, long starved of investment and entangled in red tape, also have failed to respond nimbly to the crisis. Archaic computer systems in state Unemployment Insurance offices crashed as applications surged. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, our front-line agency against pandemics, not only sent out flawed coronavirus tests, but also allowed bureaucratic inertia to delay the production of reliable tests by private laboratories.
Tens of millions of young children and older students have lost months of early learning and classroom instruction as schools of all kinds have closed. Some K-12 school systems used virtual learning to mitigate the loss, but many either did not have that capacity or chose not to use it to avoid discriminating against low-income families without computers or internet access.
Through the free and reduced price lunch and breakfast programs, public schools also play a critical role in feeding needy children. While some schools improvised “grab and go” programs to provide meals to kids, 80 percent report serving fewer meals, and only 22 percent offered meals two days a week. School closings thus have contributed to an upsurge in hunger in poor communities, even as they interrupt all childrens’ education.
A BOLD BLUEPRINT FOR RECOVERY AND RESILIENCE
In contrast to Trump’s “let’s get back to the way things were” message, progressive leaders should offer voters this fall an ambitious vision for America’s economic and social reconstruction. In this report, PPI presents a blueprint for speeding recovery and building a more resilient society. It tackles long-festering social inequities and bolsters the capacities of business and government to perform their vital missions during future pandemics or other national emergencies. Applying what we have learned during the Covid-19 crisis, our scholars and policy experts offer radically pragmatic ideas for change:
• Spur digital manufacturing in America and shorten supply chains for essential goods.
• Launch a “national reemployment” drive to get everyone back to work as soon as conditions allow, and to make work pay.
• Drive down the exorbitant cost of medical care so that we can invest more in healthy communities.
• Create well-paid production jobs and fight climate change by making America number one in electric vehicles.
• Make the social safety net more resilient.
• Forge a new economic security bargain with gig workers.
• Install a “fiscal switch” that allows Washington to automatically stimulate during economic downturns and shrink its debts during expansions.
• Give birth to two million new businesses to replace those that have gone under during the pandemic shutdown.
• Invest in resilient cities and metro regions.
• Fix America’s broken financing model for higher education. • Create a more nimble and accountable K-12 school system.
• Democratize capital ownership and expand national service.
• Replace outdated U.S. immigration laws with a “demand-driven” policy that welcomes more willing workers.
• Make our electoral democracy more resilient by ensuring that every citizen can vote at home.
Find each report of our series, Building American Resilience, below:
Alec Stapp, Michael Mandel
Paul Weinstein, Jr.