But a number of readers have asked for an update. In a nutshell, I recovered. Though I developed the dry covid cough, my lungs remained clear. My ticker kept ticking. Most importantly to me, my family was either untouched or barely touched. If the much-hyped, rarely seen, antibody tests become widely available, we’ll find out if they got it at all.
I’m lucky. Lucky to have lived when more than 60,000 Americans have died; lucky to have remained home while tens of thousands have been hospitalized; lucky to be borne up by a community of generous and supportive family, friends, colleagues and readers. Despite my good fortune, though, the experience left me a covid-19 convert. Even if it doesn’t kill you, this virus can be one very nasty bug.
So I am not a covid-denier. But in the necessary fight against this disease, we’ve unleashed a second pandemic: unemployment. And it’s now at the stage where the novel coronavirus was six weeks ago. It is raging uncontrolled and overwhelming an unprepared government.
In late April, 3.8 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits, bringing the number out of work since the health crisis began to more than 30 million. This is the worst job loss in at least 50 years. Let me repeat that. Fifty years. To see worse, you have to look to the Great Depression.
Check that: To see worse, just wait a few days for the next weekly report. Today’s dreadful unemployment numbers assuredly mask an even uglier picture: untold millions of jobless Americans yet to be counted. For the tidal wave of job losses has swamped the nation’s capacity to sign people up. Across the country, websites are crashing and phones are going unanswered as state unemployment bureaucracies stagger under this unexpected burden. What masks and ventilators have been to the covid-19 crisis, call centers and computer systems are to the work crisis. The available supply just isn’t enough.
As recently as February, unemployment offices were as drowsy as an old cat in sunshine. More than a decade of steady economic growth had driven the jobless rate below 4 percent, among the lowest levels in history. With an abundance of jobs, states trimmed access to unemployment insurance benefits and tightened eligibility rules. What little capacity remained in the systems was targeted to discouraging claims, not processing them.
From best of times to worst of times faster than you can say Charles Dickens. New York’s unemployment offices fielded an average of about 50,000 calls per week before the crisis. As March turned to April, the phones rang nearly 8 million times in a single week. In Kansas, the number of new claims increased 3,554 percent compared with a year earlier — but only a small fraction of calls were even answered. Designed to process about 220 applications per day, the Kansas system received some 877,000 call attempts on a single day in late March.
Washington has thrown money at the problem: an unprecedented $600 per week for every worker sidelined by the health crisis. But guess how that money is supposed to reach recipients. Through the same state systems crushed under the weight of new claims. With federal benefits set to expire July 31, millions of workers may see only a fraction — if any — of the support approved by Uncle Sam.
The debate over reopening the economy or keeping it closed is not abstract to these Americans, who are as much victims of the coronavirus as anyone. It is as real as the rent bill and as pressing as the empty refrigerator. And any Democrats who believe this human catastrophe will somehow help them in November should check out the comments on the Kansas unemployment website. A lot of angry people blame their newly elected Democratic governor — not the president — for the mess.
Too much of the nation’s time and energy have been wasted bickering over which is worse: covid-19 or the shutdown? Disease or cure? It’s a false choice, and one with no winners. We have to manage both.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.