In the heady days of spring, when the United States was vaccinating 3 million people a day, President Joe Biden predicted a “summer of joy.” But then the vaccination campaign stalled, and the delta variant fueled a new wave of infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
This didn’t have to happen. True, delta’s contagiousness has led to rising caseloads almost everywhere. But America has pulled away from other advanced countries in hospitalizations and deaths.
There’s no mystery about why this has happened: It’s political. True, there are many Americans refusing to take the vaccines for nonpolitical reasons. There’s general distrust of authority figures, there’s distorted word-of-mouth — a friend of a friend heard about someone who had a bad reaction. (Even in my sheltered social set, I know people like that.) But the systematic refusal to get vaccinated, refusal to wear masks, etc., is very clearly tied to the unique way that common-sense public health measures have been caught up in the culture war.
According to a recent NBC poll, 91% of Biden voters have been vaccinated but only 50% of Trump voters. Or look at death tolls: Blue states look more like Canada or Germany than like Florida or Texas.
And aside from, you know, killing people, the politically driven COVID resurgence is taking an economic toll. The August jobs report wasn’t terrible — the recovery hasn’t stalled — but it was disappointing. And while there was, as always, some dispute about exactly what the numbers are telling us, with some labor economists pushing back against calling it purely a delta story, the best bet is that the resurgent virus was the biggest factor in the disappointment, as people cut back on going out to eat, traveling and so on.
By the way, this economic hit took place despite the absence of anything like the lockdowns we experienced earlier in the pandemic. There have been very few new restrictions on economic activity imposed by state and local governments. Some places have reimposed indoor mask requirements, but shopping and even flying while masked is entirely doable. No, what’s happening is individual caution reasserting itself.
And the economic hit isn’t looking nearly as bad as what we experienced in earlier waves of the pandemic. That’s the good news. The bad news is that in those previous waves, America did a surprisingly good job of stepping up to help those suffering from the economic fallout. This time we aren’t.
Given America’s historical track record of failing to help those in need, our initial response to the pandemic was almost miraculously good: generous unemployment benefits, checks sent to most households, expansions of other benefits. Why was this politically possible? Partly, I think, because at first even many conservatives saw pandemic unemployment as an act of God, not a personal failing on the part of the unemployed. Partly, also, progressives had ideas about what to do, while the Trump administration and its allies were clueless. So there was an element of the “Yes, Prime Minister” effect: We must do something. This is something. Therefore, we must do it.
In any case, the result was remarkable: Despite huge job losses, poverty actually fell.
But the most important of the pandemic relief programs, enhanced unemployment benefits, has now expired, with no prospect of renewal, given brutal political divides and the return of Republicans to their traditional view that helping the unemployed makes them lazy. If we’d had the summer of joy we were promised, this wouldn’t be so bad. But the stalled vaccination campaign — again, largely although not entirely a political phenomenon — has fed a viral resurgence that’s holding back the economy, which means that millions of workers are still stranded. And this time they aren’t getting the relief they need.
Now, there was a hiatus in enhanced unemployment benefits last fall, and for the most part, families made it through. Many had accumulated savings in 2020, and this tided them over until benefits were restored that December. And maybe, just maybe, this won’t work out too badly. There are hints in the data that the delta wave is subsiding, and vigorous job growth may resume in time to rescue the unemployed.
But maybe not. Politics has already given us a completely unnecessary tragedy: thousands of preventable deaths despite the ready availability of lifesaving vaccines. And we may be about to suffer a gratuitous economic tragedy on top of that.