Sharon Astyk on the Coming Year
Sharon Astyk, who I'm sure everyone here knows, posted this on her Facebook account. I'll leave her words to speak for themselves but when Sharon Astyk says something, I tend to listen.
I've been mulling this post over for a few days, because it involves some longer term thinking and making predictions. I'm not a huge fan of straight out prediction - I think the world is overall pretty complicated, and while I make a lot of informed guesses, I rarely claim they are anything more. Instead, I usually advise people to prepare for multiple possible outcomes in ways that put you in the best shape for all of them. And that's still good advice. But I'm going to diverge from it a bit, and I want you to understand why and what I'm saying clearly. So bear with me. Apologies for the length of this.
For example, when I advised people with enough resources to do so to stock up, take care of essential medical issues and make additional donations to community programs back in early Feb, I did so with the understanding that doing so would probably work out for people anyway - they'd have extra food and supplies even if there wasn't a shortage and could just buy less later. Community programs would be stronger and able to help more people. And their teeth would be clean and they'd have their meds, even if nothing had happened. It is possible that my predicting a coronavirus outbreak might make some people anxious for no reason, but the cost-benefit ratio of being prepared was so much greater than any losses from acting as though we'd have one. Pity our government didn't do the same.
As I said, I rarely fly into the higher atmosphere of actual prediction, and ask people to prepare for SPECIFIC outcomes, mostly because I think the future is mostly opaque and mostly supposed to be opaque. Moreover, as I say every time I do make any predictions: "I do not believe that everything that comes out of my ass or my mouth is divine truth. I make plenty of mistakes. Please remember you are listening to a lady who writes on the internet for free and value what you receive accordingly."
But I am going to break that rule today, and make actual predictions, and at least say that I am making my own personal strategies around this, and I'm not sure it would be a bad idea for the rest of you to do so. You will then have to decide whether this is worth considering for yourself.
As you know, I'm a data girl. That's why my feed is so full - some of it is to share with you all, of course, but a lot of it for me. I'm trying to make a picture of what's going on, and what might or might not come next. And creating such a picture comes from a wide range of sources, often from tiny tidbits from within larger content.
Right now, what the data says, is that we're headed back up to substantive increases in caseloads. Besides widely publicized outbreaks in Florida, Texas, Arizona and the Carolinas, and basically across the south and west, if you look at individual states, the numbers are creeping up. New York, which is responsible for a majority of the overall national decline, is back over 900 cases a day - just for Friday, so far, but the creep is timed perfectly for the first cases from both reopening and the protests. The US had 23K new cases Friday, but 26K yesterday ON A SATURDAY - while stats are almost always lower on Saturdays to reflect a lack of test processing on weekends. Yes, it is only one day, but it is a real oddity.
It is too early to be sure that this part of an overall trend, but when you see something emerge in the data EXACTLY where you'd expect to see it - in MN on Wednesday, in response to it being the first state with protests, in NY on Friday to reflect changes here - you begin to think you've got something. Add in the universal American - "we are so over it" response, and I hope I'm wrong, but I don't think I am.
The weekly average has been around 20-23K cases since mid-may, leading to 800ish deaths a day. Up to 25K+ cases will inevitably lead to about 1000 deaths a day. More if hospitals are overwhelmed. In this, I'm not saying anything everyone else who pays attention isn't. But here's where I'm going to go a little further. And I'm going to make 4 assumptions. You can feel free to argue with those assumptions, and if you think I'm wrong about all or any of them, you should make different choices.
1. That the Republicans are not lying and won't allow another stimulus package until August. And then like the last one it will mostly move wealth to the wealthy. I believe there will be a new stimulus bill, probably even one a bit more generous than the last for individuals, because the Republican congress will be trying to buy votes, but the money won't arrive until fall. After that, it will be crickets until either a new administration takes over or until the poverty riots.
2. That even the Blue state governors are going to find it incredibly hard to shut back down for both political and economic reasons. Yesterday Andrew Cuomo, who has stood among the firmest in his shutdown policies, announced it would be up to local governments to enforce any further shutdowns - ie, washed his hands of some of the responsibility. The Red state governors won't do it until there is mass public outcry and their jobs are at stake, and we are a very, very long way from that. The Blue state governors may walk it back to phase 2, but that's as far as it will go, not because they are unconcerned about human lives but because politically and economically they cannot make other choices. We're open.
We are not going to meaningfully constrain the death rate until it exceeds what we are willing to tolerate as a people. And that's a ways away. Moreover, even if states due walk back their re-openings, public behavior won't change until people are afraid. I'm thinking that doesn't happen until early to mid July at the soonest. Which puts death peaks in mid-August to early September. I also expect a lot of lying and massaging of numbers in order to enable the nation to stay open - which is already happening.
3. That the economy is tanking because of the virus, not the shutdown. That reopening won't save small businesses, won't make most people feel safe, and won't make people not broke. It has its own momentum, and since we have failed to reduce the virus, the financial situation will get worse for quite a while. Sweden is our test case there, and every study suggests that a hard lockdown and then stable reopening is the better outcome - but we've made our choice. We are going to have a longer and deeper and more awful recession than we had to, and our reopening is going to be more fragile. Many more jobs will be lost and the predictions of a fast recovery are ridiculous. As long as the virus rips us to pieces, it will also rip the economy. And that's a long time.
4. That there isn't going to be a miracle before spring (at the very earliest) in re: the virus and treating or reducing its effects. The last, of course, is probably the most uncertain, but while we know how to treat it better, we have yet to figure it out. I could certainly be wrong about this one, but I hold on to the old military adage that hope is not a strategy. Moreover, it is worth remembering that this could go on for several years.
I actually think an outbreak of several years is the most likely outcome - that we will have two years of a period where we are dealing with a virus with a high death rate that many of us can't afford to contract. I also think that patterns in coronavirus immunity suggest some of us are going to get it more than once. We are going to average 1000 deaths a day across the US MINIMUM for pretty much a year or two. I actually think it will be quite a bit higher at points - my guess is 3/4 million dead by next spring.
You can argue with my presuppositions, and I don't insist you share them. But if you do share all or most of them, here's my conclusion - ON SOME LEVEL WE ARE ON OUR OWN. And all of us are going to have to, while still caring about the larger picture and working on it, focus most deeply on the local and immediate one for personal and community safety and survival.
Now I want to be really clear about what I mean by this. I don't mean "git yer guns and move to the forest and be prepared to fight it out with the rest of the Zombies.' Nor do I mean "stop caring about your community and put all your resources into dried beans for yourself." What I really mean is actually the opposite of every man for himself. I am encouraging people to prepare to protect their own, and I want you to use the broadest possible definition of one's own - one's community, neighbors, family, friends, institutions they care about, and the democracy we love and value. I want you to put your money, resources, time and action where your mouth is, think of the things you love - the kids in your neighborhood, your grandkids, the people who really care about your city, the local network of POC, your sister's family and your cousin in Newark, your medically fragile best friend...and start strategizing how to keep everyone alive, fed, housed, safe and cared for. If you have extra resources, I want you think about how you can use them to extend further the category of "your own" or protect the most vulnerable on that list. If you have few resources, prepare ways to share what you have an insulate yourself from what's coming.
When I say "we are on our own" what I really mean is that all of us have things we care deeply about and want to protect and preserve, and right now, our government at pretty much all levels, is either unwilling or unable to protect those things, because they are engaged in a different project - a mostly political one.
That doesn't mean some individual figures won't do the right thing, some places won't make good choices or the best choices they can, but the truth is that governors and mayors and city councils have budgets and economic concerns. We've already decided that we can tolerate a certain number of deaths - and not even for a profit. We're just ok with killing people and not getting an economic return. We know that if we'd shut down before this we'd be better off. And we still didn't do it.
Moreover, historically America has also shown itself to be willing to tolerate incredible amounts of suffering in ordinary people, incredible amounts of poverty, food insecurity and health care insecurity. They are most comfortable, even happiest doing this when the people suffering most are not white, but plenty of white people are also obviously expendable, so don't be an asshole. This pattern is unlikely to change in a massive recession. If we didn't care nationally if children went hungry, or children were sexually abused in cages or people died unnecessarily of diabetes because they couldn't afford insulin when we were comparatively rich (even if that wealth missed tons of people) we will care less and blame the recession for not caring. Eventually, it will be so awful and affect so many people we may care, but that takes time, and for a long time we will simply blame the virus and the recession, and probably those pesky people who didn't want to be shot by police and dared to complain.
I am not going to bother to try and predict the presidential election, because there are too many variables. I know a lot of people are pretty gleeful that Trump is down double digits to Biden right now, but there are many months between now and November, and way too many things that could happen. I will say I think nearly everyone has consistently underestimated Trump and I will be surprised if this is not actually a fairly close election. I also expect at least one expedition of military Keynesianism, ie, an attempt to restart the economy by fighting. Moreover, I am not going to bother trying to predict what happens with the Senate. Because while it matters hugely, it doesn't matter that much to my larger point.
So let's examine the very best cases scenario (to my mind) - Biden wins handily with a mandate, the Senate flips with a solid majority, some of the less competent governors who handled the pandemic badly are eliminated, and every fool is replaced with more competent people. Biden appoints many of the best of his opponents to important roles, every uses Elizabeth Warren's plans for everything and we have rainbows and unicorns galore. More stimulus, better health care and social supports are in the plans.
They still don't take power for 7 months. 7 more months of this pandemic, functionally under a Trump administration intent on gutting everything and extracting everything. Even when they do take power, they take it 10 months into a massive, unprecedented pandemic, with half a million dead Americans and more disabled. They take it in the middle of the deepest recession in more than a century, with unemployment at between 10 and 20 percent. They still have a deeply divided country, that struggles to handle even basic public health responsibilities. The massive deficit spending of the previous administration reduces their options further. Moreover, while I'm sure there will be an initial burst of optimism, they will inherit a weary population. It will be winter, and seasonal flu plus the winter Covid outbreak will be in full bore. Oh, and it is 2020, so expect a few fun surprises too.
My point is that the social supports that we will need and what they are able to achieve at that point may not match up. States will be broke. People will be broke. Climbing out of a recession is likely to take a minimum the entire next administration. What they can accomplish will necessarily be somewhat limited, and take time to bring about. The earliest we might see significant changes in everyone's life is at the 1 year mark on the pandemic. And that's if everything goes well. It might not. The truth is that the Democrats are a. bad at winning and b. bad at using their wins to change things. They will have a limited amount of political capital, and I have deep trust in their ability to blow it. Some help may come out of it, but odds are good it won't be nearly as much as most of us would need or want to see to ensure safety and survival.
All I'm saying here is that expecting things to get radically better in the next 9 months is probably not a good bet. Even in the best case scenario it is going to be a while. It could be a lot longer. Moreover, decisions are going to be made mostly for political reasons - not rational ones - for the next 9 months no matter what happens. That means decisions like whether school reopen, whether nursing homes get protected, whether health care is provided and for whom and at what cost, whether hungry people get food, whether you have to go to work, whether you get unemployment, whether you get evicted, who lives, who dies - all of those decisions will not be made in anyone's personal best interest at any level that you can consistently trust. That is, people won't decide whether you should eat at a restaurant based on whether it is safe or not, but on whether they are ok with a certain number of people dying so restaurants can be open. If you don't want to be one of them, you will have to make your choices.
And that goes for pretty much everything including economic decisions. They will decide on whether you get unemployment or not and whether you can live on it based on budgets and politics, not on whether you can buy groceries. They will decide if your Dad dies in the assisted living home based on policy, not whether you care about your Dad or not. They will decide if your neighbor gets evicted with her kids or not based on landlord lobbying, not whether she needs housing or the community is safer if she has it.
We are on our own. And we should be prepared for that. That means you should consider scenarios and plan to protect yourself, your family, your friends, your community by consolidating resources and planning for the worst possible outcomes. If you've been out of work, and think you won't be able to pay your rent when protections expire in July, I would not assume that your protections will be renewed (they probably will be in some places, and not in others, but I wouldn't assume - or that they will be the NEXT time.) Instead, I'd start thinking about whether you could consolidate housing with someone else, sharing a place, or moving in with family. If you are relying on the public schools to provide childcare next fall, I'd start thinking about what other options you have, about bubbling with other families to share childcare. If you don't feel your Mom is safe on her own, you might want to think about where she'll live, and whether you would feel safe with congregate care.
Communities and organizations need to make these choices too. That is, bundle up with other similar organizations, because when donations dry up because people are broke, you can keep the lights on. Think about how volunteers could keep the essential functions going with reduced overhead. Think about other essential needs not being met in your community and how your organization can serve them - and find the resources to serve them. If you've stopped providing some services, think about others you can replace them with.
Build your neighborhood and community networks - make them stronger and more useful. Think very strongly in terms of combining resources to maximize them. That includes choices you might not ordinarily make - older people with housing who want to stay in their homes may need to rent out space to families who can't afford to stay in theirs and everyone may need to negotiate safety and accomodation. Collectivize to maximize buying and distribution power, so that people can build up food resources and reserves. Give up on some traditions that simply don't make sense right now and do the work of reallocating funds to essentials.
Also remember that no one right now is giving human life the value it deserves in most places. Most people are making judgements that like it or not, will kill many people. If you don't want yourself or your family or your neighbors to be among them, you need to make other choices, strategizing to reduce your risk as much as possible. Some people may be fortunate enough to be able to do that indefinitely in their personal households, but most people won't. So we are going to have to strategize to ensure, for example, that someone can care for kids who have to stay home from school, or for Grandma who can't live alone, but can't be exposed to someone who has to work.
The advice I'm giving is different than the advice I gave back in February - again if you did what I told you to do then, and nothing happened, it all worked about fine. Here, I'm saying "go against the American narrative, do different things than the ones that Americans do." The biggest, hardest one is to combine resources and trust other people in ways that few Americans who aren't very low income or recent immigrants do. Most of us value our privacy and autonomy, and while those values have a downside, they also have virtues. But I also think that they are secondary to basic safety and security.
Think primarily in terms of basic needs - food, shelter, safe water, medical care, childcare, eldercare, care for the disabled. Shift away from optional things, towards essentials, even if that seems sad and hard. Because what is sadder and harder is not having those things.
Even the weak institutional supports we've been able to count upon like schools and basic social welfare programs are vulnerable right now. How vulnerable varies from place to place and with specific circumstances, but the universal is that money makes institutions run, and money makes households run, and there isn't going to be much extra flowing in - at best things will be stable with rising prices for essentials (and most people won't have the best), but everyone needs to be putting aside for decline. Stock markets may rally, but they won't stay there. Jobs may be there...for now, but what about the next round of layoffs? Or the one after?
This strategy is risky. If all goes well, there is an early treatment, the economy gets back to rip-roaring start, giving up your apartment to move in with your parents may be put you in a weaker place. If it turns out that an early vaccine works well, and is widely available, having one of your household members quit work to homeschool may be a bad choice. Taking Mom out of her assisted living facility and bringing her home may deprive her of contact with her peers and supports she had. Consolidating your church into another church building and letting the local free legal hotline move in to a Sunday school classroom could create bonds that you'd rather were broken when everything is over. Switching the budget for summer programming to building up a community food reserve and free clothing exchange means that there might not be anything for concerts next summer when everyone is desperate for entertainment and things are better.
However, the net gains if things don't miraculously get radically better are huge. Planning to move in with your grown kids and grandchild, and getting set up for that will make things much less painful, and might be a lot better than not hugging your granddaughter for two years. Giving up less essential services for your community organization and concentrating on housing and drug treatment will save lives literally by reducing community spread and making sure people aren't ODing in isolation. Moving in with a fellow single Mom may prevent you from being evicted, and ensure that your paychecks go further, and keep your kids from going hungry.
The fact is, that those consolidations are going to happen for a lot of people whether we like it or not. A single Mom with a bad case of Coronavirus is going to need help to care for the kids regardless. If rent protections aren't renewed, you'll be out on the street, so plan accordingly. A senior may value her privacy, but know she can't grow a garden or maintain the house anymore alone, and faces a horrible death if she needs congregate care of any kind. Your organization's premises are a pain in the ass and expensive anyway. Do it BEFORE the rush. Just like stocking up was smarter before everyone else wanted toilet paper, make your choices for the future now before everyone else does.
The only other piece of advice I have for you is simple. This is an adventure. You are living in interesting times. Some of us thrive on adventure. Others think they are nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things. Both, of course, are true. But while I don't demand any of us enjoy this, or fail to lament what we're losing, being open to what is demanded of us, and finding it interesting at least, makes it possible to make hard changes not as cruel necessity, but as something we do to face up to the world we live in, and make the end outcome worth the challenges and suffering that came with it.