If the defining feeling of this moment is rootlessness, a sense of being unstuck in time, it’s not only because the days all seem to blend together. It’s the rolling, asynchronous spread of the virus, the time-traveling cascade of news, the infinite churn of dates and charts and soaring totals and flattening curves. We can look back into the recent past in Florida and forward into a grim possible future in New York. We’re learning to think in logarithms, to count the days between logacases doubling, to understand that the events of May and June and beyond are being determined, right now, by how well all of us, together, can manage to stay apart.
“We're chasing the ghost,” said Governor Jared Polis last month. It can take more than five days for someone who has contracted the virus to begin feeling symptoms, and longer than that for the worst cases to require hospitalization, meaning that social-distancing orders must be in place for weeks before their effectiveness can be measured, and always feel too late. A week ago, we weren’t being told to wear masks. Two weeks before that, you could still sit down in a coffee shop. One month ago today, Denver’s top public-health official was telling people to keep going to concerts and Nuggets games.
We’re playing catch-up, and we’re losing. There are still Coloradans for whom it all hasn’t quite sunk in yet, from the right-wingers militating against shutdown orders in a fit of ideological pique to the larger masses of the young and chronically disengaged. On Denver’s streets and sidewalks this weekend, the masks were few and far between. Polis will try again tonight, in a televised, primetime address, to communicate the gravity of the situation.
For those of us who have needed less convincing, the last few weeks have been a matter of figuring out how to cope with the stress, the anxiety, a kind of perpetual, low-grade shock. We’re all grieving, even if — for now — it’s only for our own ideas of what life would be like in the year 2020.
But if this is a grieving process, we’re only in the bargaining stage. In all likelihood, things are much worse than you think. The United States’ response to the outbreak is the worst of any country in the developed world, and many people will die needlessly as a result. Social-distancing measures will need to remain in place for many months, and even as the strictest of them are eased, aggressive surveillance and case-based intervention efforts will take their place. Far from bringing Americans together, the crisis is further radicalizing the worst elements of our politics and deepening our class divide. The front-line workers keeping essential services functioning are vulnerable, under-supplied and terrified. The consequences of the staggering economic catastrophe into which the world has been plunged overnight will last for years to come.
In Colorado last week, the death rate rose faster than in any other state in the country, Polis told federal officials in a letter pleading for more medical supplies. “Our best estimates show that we are weeks away from receiving our first deliveries from new suppliers or taking product of new manufacturing lines for life-saving ventilators and essential [personal protective equipment],” he wrote. “In these next few weeks we expect our biggest jumps in new COVID-19 cases and the resulting victims requiring ventilators.”
The state’s best guess is that the number of Coloradans who have contracted the virus is four to ten times higher than the 4,950 cases that public-health officials have been able to confirm as of this past weekend. On April 5, a state government committee prepared to issue a set of emergency guidelines advising medical providers to prioritize life-saving treatment for younger, healthier people, health-care workers, first responders, pregnant women and other special groups in the event that their capacity to treat critically ill patients is overwhelmed. The guidelines include a four-tier points system to help hospitals make decisions about who lives and who dies. The fourth tier is called “Random Allocation as Tiebreaker.”
The world is not ending. Civilization isn't going to fall apart. The average person’s risk of dying from COVID-19 remains low. We shouldn’t panic or lose hope — but nor should we give in to the temptation, in the coming days, to look away from all the death and suffering and chaos caused by this largely preventable disaster.
Among both consumers and producers of news, there’s an understandable impulse in times of tragedy to amplify stories that uplift us, to find the heroes and the moments of grace, to wax optimistic about strangers paying it forward and the triumph of the indomitable American spirit. Now more than ever, positivity sells. But when these stories are overindulged, when they take up too much precious real estate in half-hour newscasts and our limited attention spans, they become little more than comforting lies.
Without question, there are heroic acts of sacrifice being performed every day by the hundreds of thousands of people on the front lines of Colorado’s efforts to combat the virus, from the nurses and doctors battling the surge of admissions to the grocery and delivery workers making sure the rest of us can stay safe and well-provisioned at home.
Travis Owens, a Littleton resident who has worked for app-based delivery services like Instacart for four years, has seen a dramatic uptick in orders in recent weeks, most notably from elderly people and families with an immunocompromised parent or child. “There are customers who literally can’t go out, and if it wasn’t for people like us, they’d die in their homes,” Owens says.
But like so many other front-line workers, Owens isn’t being treated like a hero. He’s not even being treated like an employee of Instacart, the service for which he’s worked for years, because he technically isn’t. He and other Instacart shoppers across the country say the company hasn’t done nearly enough to protect them amid the outbreak, and they’ve gone on strike to demand hazard pay, better sick-leave policies and protective supplies like hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.
“I’ve been fighting with them for almost the last month, to figure out what they were going to do as cities started shutting down and this started spreading,” Owens says. “It was nothing, nothing, nothing. No matter how many times we tried to communicate with support, nobody had a definitive answer.”
Instacart has announced an additional set of measures in the wake of the strike, including the distribution of health and safety kits, but Gig Workers Collective, a group representing the striking shoppers, says the changes don’t go far enough. Owens claims the company’s promise of fourteen days of paid sick leave for workers in quarantine has proven hollow. “We’ve had several drivers across the country apply for that, and Instacart has basically said no,” he says.
Instacart and its “independent contractors” may exist on the precarious new frontiers of the gig economy, but concerns about a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and the inherent risks of front-line work extend across every sector, business and public service still in operation. A postal worker in Greenwood Village has filed a complaint accusing the Postal Service of negligence for failing to implement proper safety measures. As many as a thousand employees at the JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley went on strike last week for similar reasons.
Most of these “essential” workers have two things in common: They work some of the lowest-paying, least secure jobs that our economy has to offer, and now they’re being made to assume some of the highest levels of personal risk in a devastating pandemic. Feel-good stories about temporary “hero pay” bonuses being given to employees at grocery chains like Safeway and Kroger will do little to change either reality, and many less-visible workers aren’t getting raises or new benefits at all.
Amazon, the company owned by Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, last month solicited public donations for an “Amazon Relief Fund,” to which delivery contractors can apply for “grants” to cover their sick leave. A week earlier, the CEO of Whole Foods, another Bezos company, encouraged employees to “donate” their paid time off to coworkers who were experiencing medical or family emergencies. Some Whole Foods workers, too, staged a “sick-out” last week to demand better pay, benefits and safety protections. Like many other essential workers, they’re stressed-out and fearful of the harm they could cause themselves or their families just by going to work every day.
“I've heard about and experienced crying jags, extremely heightened anxiety and insomnia because of this,” says an employee at a Denver-area Whole Foods, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. “We constantly worry about going home and hurting our loved ones. Everyone I know who works there is going through this.”
“I’m scared,” Owens says. “I’m freaking out. I have three kids that live in Kansas — like, what am I going to do, what happens if I get sick? Am I going to be able to see my kids?”
In story after story from the front lines, a clear picture of the catastrophe emerges. Despite a great deal of hopeful talk about people coming together in a time of crisis, the pandemic is, if anything, exposing and exacerbating the fault lines running through American society, not mending them. Low- and middle-income workers are growing more desperate, facing sudden mass unemployment or the day-to-day terror of high-risk jobs, while much of the white-collar world transitions painlessly into a new normal of video chats, takeout margaritas and Tiger King binges. Social services that were already stretched thin now find themselves existentially threatened. Our broken health-care system is still saddling patients with obscene, life-altering medical bills for daring to seek care.
At the Department of Veterans Affairs, plagued for years by dysfunction, understaffing and labor strife, more workers have tested positive for the virus nationwide than in any other federal agency, according to a report from Government Executive last week.
Bernard Humbles, a mental-health counselor from Monument and president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 2241, the union representing Colorado VA workers, says the agency has refused to communicate clearly with employees about the number and location of cases. He’s fielding complaints from the VA’s front-line health workers all over the state — reports of employees testing positive, a lack of proper safety protocols and, above all, severe shortages of supplies. In one VA medical office, he says, employees are being given a glove — singular — if they need to touch something.
“We’ve got a mess on our hands,” Humbles says. “It’s getting crazy. And I expect it to get worse before it gets better.”
The calamitous economic consequences of the pandemic are only beginning to be felt. They will come in waves, as financial safeguards and backstops fail and debts and losses mount. An unprecedented ten million Americans lost their job in March, and economists at the Federal Reserve project that that figure could rise as high as 47 million in the coming weeks, leading to an unemployment rate of over 32 percent. Young adults, already burdened with historic levels of debt and little wealth, will be further crushed financially. The health-care costs associated with the outbreak could send insurance premiums soaring by as much as 40 percent next year.
Even on a basic logistical level, the current drain on resources economy-wide, as supplies and money and manpower are redirected towards the most urgent needs, will have second- and third-order effects that few of us are contemplating right now. What happens when our nationwide shortage of N-95 respirator masks persists into wildfire season? The Federal Emergency Management Agency, pressed into action by the coronavirus crisis, is running short on staff and closing training centers even as forecasters predict an “above normal” Atlantic hurricane season and severe flooding throughout the Midwest. In a press conference with front-line workers on Friday, April 3, Aurora firefighter Jimmy Allen raised concerns about these knock-on effects.
“We have to think about July, August — what supplies are we going to be short on then?” Allen asked. “How about airway equipment, bag valve masks, non-rebreathers, nasal cannulas? Those seem to be in pretty good supply right now, but as we start to deplete — our CPAPs, our nebulizers, albuterol inhalers — I’m worrying about what those type of supplies we’ll have come July and August, when the second wave hits.”
Even now, federal officials are frustrating leaders in states like Colorado with their inadequate and scattershot efforts to deliver life-saving supplies where they're most needed. Polis took to CNN Friday night to slam the feds for “buying stuff out from under us,” including a pending order of 500 ventilators that was canceled after the equipment was purchased by FEMA. Colorado has received only a small fraction of the supplies it has requested from the national emergency stockpile even as states like Florida, controlled by Republican allies of the administration, have received all they've asked for and more. “The president knows Florida is so important for his reelection,” a White House official told the Washington Post about the supply disparities.
But anyone who thinks the deficit of federal leadership begins and ends with Donald Trump only needs to look to Capitol Hill, where both the House and the Senate are on vacation for another two weeks in the middle of the worst national crisis in living memory. Senators Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner both sounded pleased with the bipartisan CARES Act the upper chamber passed in a 96-0 vote before taking a long recess last month.
"I am grateful to everyone who set aside politics and rose to our nation’s moment of need," Bennet said of the bill that includes a multi-trillion-dollar bailout fund for corporations and a one-time $1,200 payment to most American workers. A small-business loan fund designed to be one of the legislation's most important relief measures is already running into major problems.
Travis Owens has been on the front lines of this new American economy for years. He's "fortunate," he says, because he makes so little income from gig work that he's able to qualify for Medicaid and food stamps. Instacart, an $8 billion company owned by a laundry list of private-equity interests, has gradually paid him less and less since he became one of the platform's earliest adopters in the Denver metro area.
"I've seen everything, in the last three years or so — the way we've been treated in general has just declined exponentially, the amount of pay we're making per order, the way they handle tips," Owens says. "I worked for another company that hit a seven-figure return one year, the year I worked for them. And they barely wanted to pay their contract workers minimum wage."
It's going to be deeply uncomfortable for us to confront the reality of the weeks and months ahead, as many people die, and many others suffer, their lives turned upside down by illness or unemployment or missed payments or mounting debt or a thousand other events in a chain reaction of loss and misery. It will be uncomfortable to know who we asked to pay the highest price as we navigated this crisis. Least comfortable of all, though, is the thought that the crisis has been on our doorstep all along.
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