The Republican coronavirus meatgrinder

They have given up on containment

Workers walking off a ledge.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

The second wave of the coronavirus pandemic continues to accelerate. July 7 saw over 54,000 confirmed cases, a 72-percent increase over the previous two weeks. Many hospital intensive care units are completely full in Texas, Florida, Arizona, and elsewhere, and there is every sign the outbreak will get much worse before it gets better.

In response, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is laser-focused on … immunizing companies from legal liability if they infect their customers or employees. Meanwhile, President Trump is threatening to cut off federal aid to schools that do not reopen in the fall, despite the fact that neither he nor anyone else in his party has gotten behind the massive aid to states and local governments that would be a necessary precondition to even thinking about doing so safely.

The ruling Republican Party has all but given up on containment. Instead they are feeding the American people into the coronavirus meatgrinder.

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McConnell has been pushing for liability protections since April — which would last for five years, backdated to December 2019 — with the explicit objective of trying to force the economy to recover even if it causes people to get sick and die. "There’s an army of trial lawyers out there ready to take advantage of the situation," he said recently. "We cannot get back to normal if we have an epidemic of lawsuits." President Trump was even more blatant back in April. "We just don’t want that because we want the companies to open and to open strong," he said.

This is not a theoretical concern. Companies across the country have been cavalier or worse about protecting their customers and especially their workers. Meatpacking facilities, for instance, have about the worst possible conditions for spreading the virus, because they have hundreds of workers together in close proximity for long shifts, the deafening noise of the machinery requires people to shout, and climate control systems aggressively circulate air to keep the meat from spoiling. Some companies have taken precautions, but they plainly were not even close to enough. Dozens of plants suffered major outbreaks, and some 30,000 meatpacking workers have tested positive for the virus. Many closed down temporarily, which naturally prompted Trump to order them to remain open. One Minnesota man named Salvador Ramirez told his wife that the packing company forced him to keep coming in even after an outbreak was confirmed at the plant and he started feeling sick. He later died.

Meanwhile, Amazon saw many outbreaks at its warehouses in the initial stage of the pandemic. The company has taken some precautions, but also used protests over inadequate containment as an excuse to fire labor organizers. Since then workers have repeatedly complained that Amazon is skimping on containment to keep the packaging flowing — one lawsuit from workers isn't demanding damages, but is trying to force the company to adhere to proper sanitation and social distancing guidelines.

The grocery story HEB is one of a tiny handful of big companies that has been taking the pandemic seriously from the start. The rest have followed the logic of short-termism, reflexively avoiding or cheaping out on protective investments or work slowdowns for fear of lost profits, which in many cases ironically caused outbreaks so severe that they were forced to shut down anyway. Fear of a lawsuit for gross negligence is one of the few things that could make business behave decently, which is probably why McConnell wants to foreclose the possibility. In the Republican mindset, capitalists must rule, no matter how horrible their decisions are.

Meanwhile, the school year is looming on the horizon like some dread monstrosity from beyond space-time. Parents who have been cooped up with their children for months enduring the frankly impossible task of juggling childcare or online education with full-time work are at their wit's end. Online "distance learning" has proved to be horribly ineffective. So yes, Trump is right that America desperately needs school to be able to reopen. As Matt Yglesias writes, this might be possible if schools take elaborate precautions to avoid stoking infection — by building more classrooms, adjusting climate controls to prevent air circulation, regularly testing all the teachers and students, and so forth — even if the virus is still circulating. (The smartest move, of course, would be actually contain the virus everywhere, but Trump is plainly not going to do that.)

All these proposed solutions have one thing in common: They cost money. Previously Trump and McConnell resisted aid to states, apparently because Trump wants to use the leverage of a collapsing economy to force them to reopen. As a result, state education systems have already laid off hundreds of thousands of teachers thanks to vanishing tax revenue, with more likely to come. After the first rescue package passed, McConnell conditioned even modest aid on his legal liability idea, while today Trump is threatening even more cuts if schools don't open up and fling themselves into the pandemic death pit. We are already nearly halfway through summer, and no serious systemic protections have even started to be rolled out. Teachers are rightly furious. As one wrote to Talking Points Memo, "It’s another unfunded mandate that we can all see being put on our backs. It will be our pay that’s cut, it will be us buying masks to give out even if there are a few here and there."

For months now Republicans have been positing a tradeoff between pandemic containment and the economy, as if we just cancel the lockdowns then everything can go back to normal. What they stubbornly refuse to understand is that the virus is the problem. As we are seeing, even in this benighted country a critical mass of people will not go about their normal activities if they are afraid of catching a dangerous disease. Similarly, Sweden did not officially lock down, and as a result it has suffered six-12 times as many deaths as its Scandinavian neighbors — yet its economy took just as bad a hit as theirs. Now that Norway, Denmark, and Finland have contained the virus and are reopening safely but many Swedes are still staying home, the economic damage will be even worse in relative terms.

From the start it has been obvious that Donald Trump would not do anything serious about the pandemic. He has never before faced a problem he could not squirm out of by lying, BSing, whining, or blaming others. He is neither interested in containment, nor would he be capable of doing so even if he were. What matters to him is appearances, specifically coverage of him on cable news. Thus his constant chatter about slowing down the rate of testing so that he won't look bad. And the rest of the Republican Party, because it has become a cult of personality atop an oligarchy, has no choice but to defend whatever he happens to say.

Businesses and schools will simply not be able to open back up this fall without a major containment effort. Trying to bludgeon them into doing so will merely create more outbreak clusters and force them to close right back down again. Which is why that is probably what is going to happen. You can always rely on Republicans to pick the worst of all possible options.

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