By David Rogers. April 7, 2020. BLOWING ROCK, NC – At every level of American civilization – national, state, and local – we are at war. On the front lines, we face a humanitarian crisis of historic proportions, with potentially hundreds of thousands of people facing death and many more the ravages of disease.
Even if not infected with the virus, millions of Americans are impacted adversely because of humanitarian stresses to our healthcare system, food shortages, employment, disruptions to various supply chains, and an inability to access certain essential services.
At the rear-guard of this war, we are embattled by unprecedented economic hardship. Businesses that two months ago were healthy and thriving are suddenly shuttered, threatened with extinction. From sea to shining sea they are enterprises that in recent weeks have laid off or furloughed millions of employees and, as a result, the nation’s claims for unemployment benefits skyrocketed. Banks, fearing a run on demand deposits to put under mattresses and into home cubby holes, issued reassuring press releases that the system was sound even as the Fed and lawmakers took steps to increase market liquidity and provide economic stimulus – the long-term effects of which are yet to be decided.
From the beginning of mankind’s time on Earth, infectious diseases have been human beings’ constant companion.
In between the front lines and the rear guard, our daily activities have been drastically altered, as have our views of the world we live in.
- Must we forever wear a mask?
- Must we always NOT greet our fellow human beings, even our loved ones, with handshakes and hugs?
- Is all of education for every grade level going permanently online?
- Are sports of every kind now to be played only virtually, where winners and losers are not determined by athleticism and physical skills, but how adroit one can be with a joystick?
- How long can we patronize restaurants on a takeout or delivery basis before our own money runs out?
- Must we always feel so nervous passing someone in the supermarket aisle?
- Must we always fear the pandemic threat when we see a shopping cart full of paper towels and toilet paper?
From the beginning of mankind’s time on Earth, infectious diseases have been human beings’ constant companion. There have been other pandemics in history, many of which have claimed millions of lives around the world: the Bubonic Plague, Smallpox, Cholera, Yellow Fever, and HIV/AIDS. Then there was the Spanish Flu, the Russian Flu, Asian Flu, Hong Kong Flu, Swine Flu, SARS, Ebola, and another coronavirus, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). And of course, we can’t forget Polio.
But this one is different. Covid-19 has our great nation shaking in her boots.
In recent decades, modern science applied to healthcare seemed to have reduced the human cost of infectious disease. HIV/AIDS claimed upwards of 30 million lives worldwide since it first jumped from chimpanzees and became communicable among homo sapiens in 1981, but others like SARS and Ebola were quickly contained, if not wholly eradicated.
Effective vaccines and other therapies were developed for those earlier, historical pandemics and they were contained. A vaccine and treatment(s) for Covid-19 will undoubtedly also be developed and proven effective – for this specific virus. For those opposed to vaccinations or for those choosing not to get vaccinated…that is a different subject for another time.
But this one is different. Covid-19 has our great nation shaking in her boots because we were caught unprepared, our normally combative senses dulled by complacency. So far, there is no cure and no vaccine. The normal flu-type protocols do not work.
We are actually fighting two wars, and one of them is economic. Just a couple of months ago, the stock markets were at or near record levels all around the globe. Interest rates were low. Inflation seemed to be under control. The economy was booming. Kansas City even won the Super Bowl in February’s first week, something they had not done in 50 years and much of the football world was overjoyed at their accomplishment.
Our President initially mocked the threat, calling it a hoax, a political plot against him – and, to mix metaphors, his legion of followers (including a major media outlet) fell into like-mindedness like zombies following a Pied Piper.
It is arguably too late and a fruitless enterprise to point fingers at political “leaders” who ignored the advance warnings from the scientific and healthcare communities, warnings that very few of us among “the masses” received. But we can nonetheless be thankful for more decisive action at the state and local levels. Undoubtedly, the Draconian, almost martial law measures instituted by state governors, county commissioners and city mayors in seeming defiance of the then prevailing national “wisdom” will end up saving tens, if not hundreds of thousands of American lives.
As that information becomes more widely known then the influx of potential disease-carrying urbanites grows from a steady stream to something more resembling a tsunami.
Perhaps. One healthcare professional working in Watauga County told Blowing Rock News today that while our local “casualties” have been relatively light so far – no deaths and just seven known Covid-19 cases in Watauga County – an outbreak of infections on a much wider scale in and around the High Country of which Watauga is at the center is just around the corner.
What will drive it, he said, are all of the non-residents and seasonal residents who have sought refuge from their more urban permanent homes in New York City, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Boston, as well as Miami, Charleston, Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh, and Greensboro, to name a few. “They may not be exhibiting symptoms,” he explained, “but many of them who are asymptomatic will be carriers. And they are carrying it here.”
Many mountain communities are taking action to limit the potentially adverse impact of sudden urban flight. Some, like Blowing Rock, have asked new arrivals to self-quarantine themselves, a laudable and humane strategy if only we didn’t see so many New York, Florida, and Maryland license plates at the Post Office. Other towns, like Highlands, NC, have set up police checkpoints at the entrances to town, to actually turn people away.
A humanitarian war, indeed. While it is interesting to know that Watauga County is one of the least likely places to contract the coronavirus, as that information becomes more widely known then the influx of potential disease-carrying urbanites grows from a steady stream to something more resembling a tsunami. Healthcare facilities maxed out, even as an increased number of full-time residents become jobless when their employers are forced to send them home – and send themselves home, too.
While there is a lot of affluence in the High Country, particularly because of our seasonal residents in the summer and fall, Watauga County is still among the “poorest” of the 100 North Carolina counties. More than a third of our area’s students receive some kind of meal plan support and relief agencies like the Hunger and Health Coalition, Community Care Clinic, High Country Community Health, Hospitality House, Blowing Rock C.A.R.E.S., Casting Bread, FARM Café, and so many more have already been stretched to the limits of their respective capacities.
Sadly, being poor increases one’s chance of dying should Covid-19 be contracted.
Now they are stretched even more. Sam Garrett, Executive Director of Blowing Rock’s Casting Bread food pantry reported to Blowing Rock News last week that the demand for food subsidization has skyrocketed in the last month since the Covid-19 measures were instituted. There is a similar story coming from Rumple Memorial Presbyterian Church, which operates Blowing Rock C.A.R.E.S., and the other relief agencies are growing desperate for support, too.
Some media outlets are hyping the fact that a higher percentage of African Americans are dying as a result of contracting Covid-19, as if it has something to do with ethnicity. We would venture to say that it has little to do with race and more to do with poverty. A higher percentage of African Americans in the USA remain in poverty. Sadly, of whatever ethnic group with which they identify, impoverished people have diminished access to healthcare, perhaps distrust the system more, and are tested less for all manner of maladies. Being poor increases one’s chance of dying should Covid-19 be contracted.
As usually compassionate human beings, we face a humanitarian dilemma.
There are still many pockets of Appalachian communities that remain very rural and economically disadvantaged. As urbanites seek refuge in the mountains, they put the native populations at greater risk.
As usually compassionate human beings, we face a humanitarian dilemma: how far do we take sensitivity to others’ plight and misfortunes (and potentially save them or at least ease their suffering) when doing so increases the risk of infection to ourselves and our loved ones? Are we adequately prepared for the savior role?
On the economic crisis at our rear guard, government agencies have promised increased access to unemployment benefits — that no one would be left behind – but the online access portals to those services have broken down. Millions of would-be claimants have thrown up their hands in despair, frustrated that they can’t even provide the information required to file their claim.
Colleges and universities are scrambling to fill budget holes after having to refund money to students and their families for unused housing and meal plans. We have yet to confirm this with administrators at Appalachian State, but in various media reports many college administrators fear that even after the virus has run its presumed course many students won’t return to campus in the fall because of their families’ economic hardships and shortcomings. Affording a college education may be a thing of the past, if it wasn’t approaching that already.
Will the money be enough and soon enough?
Just four days ago, a USA Today report described small business owners’ frustration in applying for government-backed loans. One banking executive told USA Today, “The Small Business Administration in an entire year does about $30 billion in lending, so now you are looking at doing $350 billion of loans in a few short weeks. Just the scale of the number of loans that will be coming is going to cause problems.”
National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) president Brad Close warned USA Today readers, “We are hearing from far too many small businesses today that they are being shut out of the Paycheck Protection Program (the forgivable loan program recently passed by Congress and signed into law). Small businesses make up half of our economy and employ nearly half of all workers, but this has the potential to be the last straw for many small business and their employees.”
The same report cited a JP Morgan Chase analysis last September finding that 29% of small businesses were unprofitable and 47% had two weeks or less of cash liquidity.”
There are signs of hope, of course. Just today the North Carolina Bankers Association issued a press release describing the tireless work of bankers statewide in processing some 265,000 loan applications totaling $71 billion since the launch of the Paycheck Protection Program on April 3rd.
But will the money be enough and in time? Where a retail store, restaurant, or bar has closed its doors, so not buying inventory for resale or having to replenish stocks of food and beverages, they are still having to pay rent or, if they own their own building or office condominium, perhaps make a payment on a mortgage. Unless they have everything shut off, they still have utility bills. Are the banks, landlords, and utility companies offering concessions?
Finally, while stressing about the future of minimally capitalized small businesses, we have to ask about the long-term costs of government bailouts. Rightly or wrongly, where the Fed prints money and the Congress passes (and the President signs) so-called stimulus bills in the trillions of dollars, taxpayers (which is just about every American) are bearing the brunt of the economic malaise. And once things return to some semblance of normal and we regain money velocity (a measurement of the rate at which money is exchanged in an economy), inflation is bound to rear its ugly head.
Fighting two wars, simultaneously – all while trying to balance compassion with our own physical and financial survival. History has few instructive precedents. Many affluent capitalists are evolving more as socialists, expecting the government to address both the humanitarian ills as well as “fix” the economic malaise – at least for as long as it suits their purposes and either preserves or adds to their affluence. But that is a subject for yet another time and place.