The US economy enters a critical phase of the pandemic with still no real control over it. Knowledge is there, but it’s up against a tidal wave of mistrust.
The US announced its first death from the coronavirus in February. Donald Trump predicted it would all be over by Easter. How long ago that seems now. Several months on, as the US prepares for its first coronavirus winter, economists and epidemiologists foresee a critical moment—one whose consequences could determine the direction of the economy and the course of the disease into 2021 and for potentially years to come.
Take the holiday shopping season. Walmart will be closed on Thanksgiving for the first time in 30 years and so will Target, Best Buy, and Kohl’s. The risk of spreading the disease at a door-crushing super-sale is just too high. With 14.7m jobs, retail is the largest private employer in the country. Yet employment has declined sharply during the pandemic—even as online sales have soared. Furthermore, the industry is dominated by women and people of color. Dozens of retailers have filed for bankruptcy since the pandemic struck, and others are hanging by a thread. Other changes to the economy, like the blow sustained to the travel industry, may be temporary, but their impact has already been widely felt. Many offices across the US are still closed, a situation that is already shuttering businesses reliant on office workers in city centers.
All these closures are feeding into the broader economy, eroding the tax base of cities and states. New York alone is considering 22,000 public sector job cuts, and the government of Florida has a $1.9bn shortfall in its budget. The Economic Policy Institute has warned that without more federal aid, currently deadlocked in Congress, 5.3m local government jobs could be lost by the end of 2021.
The human stakes are high as well. By the New Year, the US coronavirus death toll could reach over 410,000 according to a forecast by researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). Only a fundamental breakthrough in treating the coronavirus is likely to ward off an extremely harsh winter.
Public health experts say the steps for controlling the pandemic are well understood, and it would be possible to do so in the US within months. This would depend on the public health interventions of rapid testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine to manage cases, instead of depending on drastic measures such as having people work from home and keep their children out of school.
Scientists have a much better understanding of how coronavirus is transmitted now. But they are fighting a tidal wave of mistrust from people who think shifts in messaging are something to be skeptical of, instead of a sign of evolving knowledge, and others who are pushing misinformation. But without the government taking the above steps, and maintaining them, the US could again soon be in the position it was in in June and July, when cases surged around the country.