The economic carnage of this pandemic is without historic parallel. Just last week, ArcelorMittal idled another blast furnace in East Chicago, Hoosier Park Racino at Anderson and the Tropicana Casino in Evansville furloughed a combined thousand employees, as did the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Cummins, Honda and Toyota all extended plant shutdowns through May 1.
The half million small businesses across the state find themselves on the brink of oblivion, risking hundreds of thousands of Hoosier livelihoods.
Two weeks ago, Indiana endured 146,243 unemployment claims. Department of Workforce Development Commissioner Fred Payne told the Northwest Indiana Times, “Prior to March of this year, the highest number of claims that were filed in a one-week period was the week ending Jan. 10, 2009, was about 28,000.” That was during the Great Recession of 2008-09.
Payne continued, “The number of claims were received in a one-month period during the highest amount during our downturn is now what we may be seeing on a weekly basis. We’re also seeing an equally unprecedented number of calls. Already this week we’ve had more than 210,000 phone interactions. Last week, we had 158,000.”
Folks, these are Great Depression-type statistics.
Which begs these questions: How does America restart the $22 trillion economy? And while the coronavirus pandemic is stressing medical systems across the nation, the number of total positive cases in Indiana were 6,351 and deaths were 245 at this writing on Thursday. This coming in a state with 6.85 million people. Nationally, Johns Hopkins University put the total cases at 1.5 million and deaths at 89,931 in a nation of 331 million people.
Our collective humanity and a safeguarding of life has brought a consensus to shut the economy down. But the number of afflicted and departed are less than 1% of the population.
Little wonder that President Trump, being the businessman he was, instinctively wants to reopen the economy. “We’re looking at two concepts,” Trump said on Fox News earlier this week. “We’re looking at the concept where you open up sections and we’re also looking at the concept where you open up everything.” Economic adviser Larry Kudlow put the time frame in the next “four to eight weeks.”
Two Food and Drug Administration commissioners — including Scott Gottlieb who served under President Trump — listed four goals for states to return to a normal economic footing: 1.) Hospitals in a state must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care. 2.) A state needs to be able to test at least everyone who has symptoms. 3.) The state must be able to conduct monitoring of confirmed cases and contacts. 4.) There must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.
The problem is that the Trump administration hasn’t invested in the systematic testing program health and economic experts say is required to reopen the economy. States like Indiana are scrambling to fill the void that should have been in the federal portfolio. “We are all kind of Band-Aid, patching it together to get as many tests done as we can,” said State Health Commissioner Kristina Box earlier this week. “We’re really trying to remove any restrictions for people as far as testing anybody who’s symptomatic.”
On Wednesday, the ISDH had conducted 32,000 tests. That leaves undiagnosed the tens of thousands of asymptomatic carriers of the virus. At the Anderson nursing home where 11 residents perished, the state was unable to test all residents and employees.
The danger in restarting the economy too quickly is that a second economic shutdown — with compliance of the population — was articulated by Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell, who said it was crucial to “avoid a false start where we will partially reopen and that results in a spike in coronavirus cases, and then we have to go back again to square one.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that an economic restart “includes building testing and surveillance systems … to give businesses and individuals confidence that they can return to work without risking infection.”
Last Sunday, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams invoked two past American calamities as the COVID-19 death toll approached its apex: “This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment. Only, it’s not going to be localized, it’s going to be happening all over the country.”
After the 2001 terror attacks, Congress and President George W. Bush responded by creating two new federal agencies to keep America safe: The Office of Director of National Intelligence to coordinate the 17 agencies monitoring global events, and the Department of Homeland Security. Politico reported this week that the four top jobs at ODNI and Homeland Security are filled with “acting” officials and “the very entities we tasked as a nation to prevent the next 9/11 (are) riddled with vacancies and temporary officials as the novel coronavirus rapidly spread from a small blip in China to a global health and economic catastrophe.”
In 2018, Trump disbanded the National Security Council’s pandemic unit.
Therein lies the reason why the United States missed a critical early window to prepare for what is becoming an unprecedented catastrophe.
The subsequent lack of systematic testing will continue to stress the economic reopening of our economy.