A terrible catastrophe is unfolding in America. Coronavirus has become a true pandemic. It has gone viral. The numbers — which are the worst in the world — have gone from staggering to something beyond that, shocking, surreal, gruesome, nightmarish.
America is now the global example of the worst-case scenario. But all this is just the beginning.
As Coronavirus crosses 100,000 daily cases in America, something strange and fatal will begin to happen. Society as we think of it will simply shut down. Stop working. Cease to exist. And that will be like shooting napalm on the raging megafire of this terrible catastrophe. At some point, some critical threshold, north of 100,000 cases, all of a society’s vital systems and resources and infrastructures will simply begin to stop working, crash, go offline, fall apart.
Let me begin with some obvious examples, and tell you the story of what happens next.
Hospitals will be overwhelmed. Most of their time and energy and money will now be spent fighting a deadly virus. Doctors and nurses — already stretched to the limit — will not be able to treat even more people. Other kinds of illnesses and diseases will begin to to go untreated. ICUs, already full of Corona patients, will hit their limits.
The healthcare system — what little exists in America to begin with — will not be able to cope. It will simply break. The choice will be: treat Corona patients, or treat everyone else. That kind of choice is a dilemma, because either way you go…people die. Bang! That’s a system that’s stopped functioning, because it’s simply run out of resources.
There you are. One day, you feel sick. You go to the hospital. They’d like to treat you. But they can’t. They’re full — even down to the hallways and waiting rooms which have now been converted to emergency wards. Sure, you’re sick. But you’re not sick enough. You’re told to go home, and self-isolate.
You go back home. You want — need — to list your elderly relatives. But you can’t. They live in a state with a lower COVID incidence than you, and that state — like many others — has barred entry from yours. You can’t get the much-coveted Pandemic Passport, because you can’t get seen at the hospital. Nobody knows when all this will end. There seems to be no real end in sight. You feel a twinge of anger. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. You should be able to visit your family. But you can’t cross the checkpoint. Bang! The basic infrastructure of movement across a society has now broken down catastrophically.
You calm yourself down, by thinking of daily, immediate concerns. What about little Johnny?
Little Johnny doesn’t go to school anymore. The President pulled funding from school systems which wouldn’t reopen. But not many were foolish enough to do that. They faced another dilemma — open, and get kids sick, or stay closed, and let kids be under-educated. They didn’t have the resources to cope with a pandemic going endemic either. Who would? How could a whole school become a socially-distanced lockdown zone? That would take money and time and effort people — and nobody much, it seemed, was willing to invest in that. Especially not an idiot President who, it seemed, wanted the virus to spread.
Thus, education become another system that’s a casualty of the pandemic crossing the critical threshold — all the way from grade school to university. They’ve simply stopped functioning. Sure, they hold online classes, some of them — but that’s a poor substitute for a full education. And in your county, just an average American one, the school district doesn’t quite have the resources to offer even that more than two or three days of online classes a week.
Thinking this through, you realize, startled, that money that should have gone to educating kids is now going to treat Covidiots — people still having pool parties and barbecues in the midst of a lethal pandemic, who are now packing the hospitals. Bang! Another broken system.
But that’s OK. You’re out of work, anyways. You might as well stay home with little Johnny.
At least you’re spending time together. But then you glance at that towering pile of unpaid bills on your desk.
There’s the one from Bill, the local auto mechanic, who you’ve come to know well. The one from the little grocer you buy food from. The one from the insurance company, which seems to have skyrocketed. And the ones from the bank — this card, that card, the mortgage.
How will you pay them? Your heart judders in fright.
You can’t pay them — as much as you want to pay. You realize that not paying Bill’s bill on time will threaten his little business, too. And maybe he’ll end up unemployed, just like you. A chain reaction seems to be ripping across society. You’re part of it now, even though you don’t want to be. But what can you do?
You were furloughed, for a short time. And then you were laid off, because the small business you worked at couldn’t make ends meet, even after your state “reopened” too soon. You know many, many people just like you. Will you ever have a job again, you wonder? You’re running out of money. You wonder how you’re going to make it, every night, tossing and turning. When will those extra unemployment benefits stop? This month? What then?
You don’t know it, but you’ve become a casualty of another broken system — this time the employment system. As Coronavirus crossed that critical threshold, what economists call “hysteresis” set in: short-term unemployment became long-term unemployment. Even now, a million or so people a week are filing for unemployment. There are already 50 million unemployed. Where will it end? Nobody knows.
You look over at that mortgage bill. You’ve heard that bigger businesses have simply stopped paying rent. They can get away with it. You? You haven’t paid your mortgage in months. Your stomach lurches in fear. What if they come for your house? Where will you and little Johnny go? You can’t even go back to your parents’ — though they’d love to have you — because you can’t get a Pandemic Passport. You can’t even get there.
And then you think, suddenly, of what happens when millions of people can’t pay their mortgages. The banks get bailed out, sure. But the effects are disastrous nonetheless. Lending shrinks, as risk rises. As risk rises, insurance premiums and interest rates of all kinds skyrocket. You look at your insurance bills and credit card bills. Is that why they seem to have spiked upwards lately? You frown, mulling it all over. A good economist would tell you: you’re exactly right. The amount of risk in the whole economy has now exploded, gone thermonuclear. But you — the average person — are bearing it on your shoulders. Megacorporations and banks and hedge funds have all gotten bailed out — but you’ve gotten the equivalent of just one week of support. How many months has it been? When risk explodes, but you’re the only one paying the price — what happens? You get poorer, of course. Bang. That’s another broken system: a society’s ability to manage, mitigate, and avert risk, which has now completely failed.
You feel crushed, defeated. Think it through, you grit your teeth and tell yourself. And as you think, you begin to realize that as the bills mount, as all those interest rates and insurance premiums increase, and it all falls on your shoulders, which feels crushed to begin with — what’s going to happen next? The answer seems too lethal to contemplate.
In a society where a pandemic has become endemic, work has come to a standstill. Those calling for “reopening” never quite understood how economies work. You can force people back to work, but you can’t make anyone spend money, visit a shop, patronize a business. And so people, scared and afraid, largely stayed at home. The bottom fell out of the economy. And now you’re paying the price — in so, so many forms: unemployment, higher bills, a lower income, bearing all that risk, no working social systems to help you get back on your feet.
What you suspect — but none of the economists seem to confirm — is that many of those old jobs are never coming back. That businesses of all kinds have learned to make do with less, and the biggest ones have made even bigger fortunes, feasting off a bailout trough. You’re right. Your feeling is correct. It is an intuition that the economy’s labour market is now permanently wounded, operating forever at a lower level of employment.
But a lower level of employment brings with it a lower level of income. American incomes have been stagnant for fifty years — but now they’re cratering, thanks to the mass unemployment left to explode by the lack of a government response to a pandemic.
What happens when people already living at the edge have lower incomes? You think back to all those boring essays by that annoying dude called Umair that you read sometimes. What is it he says? Something like this? One key effect is that a society must reach a new “fiscal equilibrium”, a complicated way of saying: you have less income, so society has less in taxes, and there’s less to be spent on social systems.
At precisely the time society needs to spend more. Now a brutal and terrible catch-22 emerges. This is exactly the moment that America needs to spend more — vastly more — on healthcare, education, employment, retirement, childcare, and so forth. But lower incomes means a smaller tax base, and a smaller tax base means a much, much smaller and less functional set of social systems.
So because the pandemic has cross this critical threshold, society is now permanently poorer — people earning less, while the rich of course have managed to get bailout they didn’t need. But because the average person earns less, there is even less to fund the social systems which are most desperately needed now.
Nobody’s coming to help you, you realize, suddenly. Your heart feels like it’s stopping in panic. There you are. Alone. Really alone. You don’t have a job you can count on. You don’t have any functioning social systems left. Your President wants you to contract a lethal virus. The economy has no opportunities left for you — it’s making you, the average person, bear the risk and cost of a massive pandemic. But you can’t bear those — how could you ever have? — and so the pandemic just goes on spreading.
Nobody’s coming to save you. This is how it’s going to be. You, alone, fighting for self-preservation. The extremists have had their way. What is it they used to say? Pull yourself up by your bootstraps? That’s what everyone has to do now. Only nobody can do it in a catastrophe, that’s left knocked everyone to their knees. In that situation, people must help one another rise — collective action is the only way out.
And so you have your final, terrible epiphany. What the pandemic crossing that critical threshold past 100,000 has done is destroyed the possibility of any kind of collective action in society. People don’t go out. They don’t trust each other. They barely even shop and go to work and send their kids to school. How can they act together? To fix all those broken systems? So as to finally try and beat back the pandemic? Everyone’s been made to focus, degraded, on a bitter, desperate struggle for survival.
But without collective action, the pandemic — among other disasters, like a lack of healthcare, education, incomes, happiness — will never go away. And it’s too late now. What the pandemic really destroyed — as it surged past the critical threshold — was the ability for a society to act together, and do positive, constructive, beneficial things like invest together in its shared future, build the hospitals, schools, universities of tomorrow, provide everyone good jobs and rising incomes and retirements. Now everyone’s too poor to kickstart that virtuous circle — and nobody can make the tiny number of rich care about it. Bang. That’s it. Game over.
What does it mean for a society’s systems to stop functioning, as a pandemic surges past 100,000 cases a day? Nobody’s coming to help you, save you, rescue you. You are on your own. Even if they wanted to — they can’t, because everyone’s now in a desperate struggle for survival of their own. Systems don’t have the resources to function, and the average person doesn’t have the money to increase the resources those systems have.
A vicious spiral has now kicked off. One with no real end in sight. People get poorer. Systems are broken, pushed past the point of coping, helping, aiding, functioning. Poorer people have nothing more to invest in systems that have hit their limits. Instead, a chain reaction of disease, poverty, depression, and dysfunctionality has now ignited. And it’s going to last, probably, you reckon, for most of the next decade. Even if the moron who runs the country right about now gets removed from power, somehow. Because that cycle now has a life of its own, a terrible lethal momentum. Shit.
You might as well be living in some dirt-poor country — you’d probably be better off there, to be honest. But even most of them have stopped Americans from entering. Where can you go? You’re trapped now. Trapped in a place of disease and death, where no one’s coming to rescue you. Your eyes go blank with the despair of it all for a moment. And then you realize.
That’s what the most extreme kinds of American Idiots always wanted — to destroy the idea of a modern, functioning society, to force everyone to be absolute individualists, to embrace free-dumb as the absence of responsibility towards anyone or anything but one’s self. Thanks to the pandemic, they’ve got it. A society where everyone’s on their own, in the most desolate and bizarre and crushing of ways.
And so the pandemic becomes a self-fulfilling process. It goes permanent. It just becomes a grim, regular, everyday feature of American life, a thing that doesn’t exist in most of the rest of the world, which never allowed all of this to happen.
Meanwhile, the Covidiots, egged on by a lunatic President went out and…spread the virus. A perfect storm brewed.