5 May 2020 – Tuesday – #51

Those of us living in the midst of Covid-19 sometimes forget how distant Covid-19 seems before it arrives. I can remember in January when Covid-19 still seemed like something in China, and then in February when it seemed like something in Italy. It felt remote even when Mobile World Congress was cancelled mid-February. The organizers of this massive Barcelona event seemed super cautious to consider cancellation until multinational companies started pulling out. I could feel the Covid-19 wind picking up.

By now most of Europe and the Americas know what it’s like to live in the eye of the Covid-19 storm. In the US, New York, California and Washington states certainly know what it’s like. But I forget that large swaths of flyover states haven’t felt tornado-force Covid-19 yet. This video is a great reminder of what it feels like when Coivd-19 slams into a community from a doctor dealing with a Tyson meatpacking plant outbreak in Iowa.

Dr. Sharon Duclos, Co-Director, People’s Community Health Clinic, Waterloo, Iowa

The Covid-19 meatpacking plant disaster Dr. Duclos describes is a cautionary tale. The events she describes could happen in almost any Midwest community.

A large corporation invests in enough Covid-19 protection at its plant to protect itself from lawsuits, but not enough, as is clear from the subsequent Covid-19 outbreak, to protect workers from actual Covid-19. Perhaps Tyson had good intentions when it installed worker protection. More likely it checked the boxes rather than limit production in order to understand and remediate as many Covid-19 workplace problems as possible.

The good people of the town continued working. They needed money to pay rent and buy food. They were poor and a low-wage job was salvation. It was the only way to put food on the table. Nothing to worry about. The plant managers, after all, had put in place measures to make the work place safe.

There was food on tables, workers were safe, and profits continued as the factory churned. The invisible hand was working.

And then it wasn’t. Another invisible hand showed up, a viral hand.

Capitalism broke when workers buzzed home from the Covid-19 hive carrying the virus into their community. There was food on the table, but grandma and grandpa couldn’t breathe. The rent was paid at home, but there were no rooms available where they were needed, at the hospital.

If pricing worked perfectly, if Adam Smith’s invisible hand were as powerful as God’s, then the price of meat would cover the cost of Covid-19 remediation at the plant. Meat prices would have gone up when Covid-19 was just something in China so that meatpacking plants could afford proper Covid-19 plant improvements while providing investors with market rate profits.

The irony of this cautionary tale is that the US, perhaps the world’s premiere champion of free markets and capitalism, is laying off healthcare workers in the middle of a pandemic. How crazy is that? People are dying and the dominant economic construct insists on firing healthcare workers. The pricing models for healthcare assume elective surgeries, not pandemics. As with meat, healthcare pricing models also didn’t change when Covid-19 was just something in China.

No wonder things don’t make sense.

Lots of us want to go back to normal, go back to the way it was. Yesterday, my friend Deborah emailed “I am hopeful  that we will soon see some normal way of living.” Hers is a common lament. We want to know what’s next, how the story ends, when we will stand again on the illusive terra firma, enjoying a pleasant summer breeze.

Getting back to normal depends, in large part, on maintaining our economic constructs, on our continued attendance at the Church of the Invisible Hand. Brooke Binkowski has assembled a Twitter thread of the high priests from the Church of the Invisible Hand. They are discounting the value of our lives in order to enrich theirs.

I’m going to switch gears here. You’ll see why in a moment.

I’ve been thinking about the arguments we have about IFRs and about mortality curves and about what all these numbers mean. UCSF’s comprehensive Covid-19 infection study of the Mission District of San Francisco provides more data points. The Latin population has a much higher rate of Covid-19 infections than the white population. No big surprise there.

This is the story that got me thinking about IFRs and mortality curves: the US death toll from Covid-19 just surpassed the US death toll during the Vietnam war.

What an odd comparison. The US Department of Defense marketed its success using body counts. By abstracting the war dead to a number, it could divert attention away from the one thing that really mattered: the United States could not win the war in Vietnam. When Trump says his administration should be considered successful if it limits US Covid-19 deaths to 60,000 100,000, you can hear those Vietnam body counts echoing in his bone spurs mind.

We’re doing a disservice to the Covid-19 dead when we compare their deaths to Vietnam or 9/11 or other acts of war. We’re doing a disservice to ourselves when we focus on IFRs and mortality curves to rationalize our positions.

We live in a world where the economic construct of the world’s largest economy insists on firing healthcare in the middle of a pandemic. That, my friends, is what we’re up against. Covid-19 is revealing us for who we are.

During last night’s exercise period, I walked along Diagonal and met a Moroccan stranded in Barcelona. He hates Barcelona because it’s a kind of purgatory for him. He can’t get back to Brussels, so he’s lost his job there. He can’t get home to Morocco. He’s nowhere. Like all of us, really.

This morning Faoud sent this message about living with Covid-19: “I think the world will be born again.”

%d bloggers like this: