On March 7, the presence of COVID-19 in Washington, D.C. was confirmed. It’s a virus that has shut down factories and locked down cities in several regions of the world. And now, with cruise ship passengers quarantined, and California and New York having declared a state of emergency, the coronavirus is looming presence throughout the United States. In March 2020, the number of confirmed U.S. infections rose from dozens to hundreds, coast to coast.
The virus has infected the economy and cast a shadow over the social mood. Businesses are losing customers over a form of prejudice the news outlets call coronavirus stereotyping. Instacart is touting its “Leave at My Door” feature to people who want to get their groceries with no human interaction. Of course, the delivery workers can’t opt-out of frequent interactions with people. That’s why Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia asked Instacart, as well as Grubhub, DoorDash, and other companies that use contingent workers, to keep paying people when they need time off to get medical tests or to isolate themselves.
We’ll hear a lot, in weeks to come, about the vastness of the U.S. contingent worker population. It shouldn’t have taken a major health crisis for people to wonder if taking advantage of workers might not be so advantageous after all — but here we are.
Staying at Home
Schools have closed in Washington, Oregon, and New York state, and D.C. schools have stopped planning field trips. In Washington state, where several infected people have died, Google, Facebook, and Amazon have asked employees to work from home, to slow the spread of the virus. Apple asked California employees to work from home as well. Microsoft employees in both states are telecommuting and avoiding “all non-essential business travel” through April. Twitter and HP Inc. have implemented similar policies.
Any nonprofit or business that’s dependent on travel or the physical presence of people is probably facing trouble, so stock traders are zeroing in on the “stay-at-home economy” — buying up shares of companies that appeal to the homebound. As for homebound people themselves, many will have little cash to spend. Alone among the world’s rich countries, the United States has no mandatory paid medical leave. Without continual income, workers can’t afford to take time off to isolate themselves and recover. And many already struggle to afford household staples, let alone extra things. If there were ever a perfect storm for a recession, this is it.
Some may think COVID-19’s effects will be short-lived, but the financiers don’t. Goldman Sachs, which has scattered traders to suburbia to hedge the risk of infections running through its staff, predicts a collective 0% earnings growth for U.S. companies this year.
In D.C., a great surge of activism created a new Universal Paid Leave Amendment, and it’s uncannily on-time. Starting July 1, D.C. businesses must offer two weeks of paid medical leave a year to all employees — including remote workers, if their roles are at least half-time. People who leave their jobs won’t have access, though — so there’s still a problem for D.C. gig workers that the system needs to fix.
At the federal level, coronavirus-related stimulus payments might be coming, according to The Hill — although, so far, the talk seems focused on assisting the airline industry. Some research suggests said that raising unemployment benefits would be more helpful than issuing stimulus payments. What about coverage for medical testing and treatment? California has directed insurance companies to supply free COVID-19 testing for uninsured and underinsured residents. COVID-19 ought to qualify for nationwide preventative health care benefits available without deductible or co-pay.
As Aidan Harper wrote in The Guardian, “coronavirus isn’t just a disease — it’s a test of the systems that are part of our everyday lives.” Nowhere have truer words been printed. The virus threat will not, alas, be contained and vanquished. Given our swelling and interconnected population, as well as the unpredictability of infectious diseases in a changing climate, we’ll need to brace ourselves for more. Meanwhile, we need to create an inclusive healthcare system and find ways to share prosperity. Resilience in the face of new realities must involve collective, empathetic responses.