Editorial Roundup: US

Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:

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March 18

The New York Times on providing cash assistance to Americans because of rising economic turmoil due to the spread of the new coronavirus:

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The United States has never experienced anything quite like the economic disjuncture caused by the spread of the new coronavirus. Airports and malls are empty. Restaurants and movie theaters are closed. The collapse is happening so fast it isn’t visible yet in standard data like the unemployment rate, but startling facts are piling up.

OpenTable, a restaurant reservation website, reported 56% fewer people ate at its member restaurants on Monday compared with the same day last year. In a poll, almost one fifth of the respondents said they were working fewer hours or had lost their jobs.

The economy tends to slide into recession. This is free-fall.

The crisis requires an urgent response from the federal government, and the most important step is simple: Send $2,000 to every American, immediately.

People need money to pay the rent, the mortgage, the utility bills. Handing out money also would encourage consumer spending, which is the primary form of economic activity in this country. And that, in turn, would help to keep small businesses open, and workers employed.

Politicians are coalescing rapidly around the benefits of handing out money. Senator Mitt Romney proposed Monday to send everyone $1,000. A group of six senators upped the ante on Tuesday, proposing to send everyone an initial $2,000 and as much as $4,500 by the end of the year.

The first round of payments would cost about $660 billion, equal to roughly 3% of the economy’s total output last year — big enough to offset the severe drop in economic activity that forecasters are predicting in the second quarter of the year. The government would then make additional quarterly payments until the unemployment rate subsided.

The Trump administration, which tried unsuccessfully to rally support for a payroll tax cut — a plan that, among other problems, would help only people with jobs — said Tuesday that it was also willing to support cash payments.

One downside to blanket distribution is that some people don’t need the money. There are sensible ways of correcting for this. The government could require people to pay income taxes on the money: Those with higher incomes would pay higher rates and, as an added benefit, some of the money would flow to state and local governments, which are likely to experience sharp drops in revenue. Alternatively, the federal government could use a sliding scale: less money for those with higher incomes. But there are benefits to universal distribution, too. The government can’t anticipate who is going to lose their jobs.

A drawback to sending money is that it takes time. Congress authorized a similar plan in February 2008 but the first checks didn’t go out for months, in late April. But this, too, can be mitigated by delivering more aid through existing safety net programs, which are devised to help those in the greatest need, and by limiting the potential consequences, for example by imposing a moratorium on tenant evictions and foreclosures.

One concern that ought to be discarded is the strange idea that the federal government is running low on money. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, suggested Sunday that the Trump administration’s 2017 tax cuts had exhausted the government’s fiscal capacity. Those tax cuts were a terrible misuse of public resources, but the historically low level of interest rates on federal debt suggests lenders are eager to shovel money into the government’s coffers. And this is not the time to worry about the long-term cost of the federal debt.

Giving money to people is just one component of an effective fiscal response to the pandemic. The first step, underway but far from complete, is protecting public health. The failures of the federal response to the widening outbreak, particularly the continuing absence of large-scale testing, are exacerbating the economic damage.

In countries with effective testing, like South Korea, it’s easier to limit economic disruptions. Blue Bottle Coffee, a Nestlé subsidiary, said Sunday that it was shutting its American locations but would keep its cafes open in Japan and South Korea because those countries have “extensive testing and medical support clearly in place.” In the United States, meanwhile, state and local authorities have been left with few options beyond closing businesses and asking residents to stay in their homes.

Congress approved an initial dose of $8.3 billion for public health measures, including money for masks and other supplies; for medical research; and for state and local public health departments. A second bill, which passed the House and is awaiting Senate consideration, would expand spending on safety net programs, including unemployment insurance, health insurance and food stamps.

It also includes a deeply flawed plan to require some employers to offer paid sick leave to workers, at government expense. That program excludes employers with more than 500 employees, a mind-boggling loophole that encompasses 54% of the private work force. The Senate would be wise to rewrite the legislation to provide 10 days of emergency paid sick leave to all workers at federal expense.

The second step is containing the economic damage, which includes sending out checks to people. The government also needs to provide help to businesses.

The Federal Reserve said Tuesday that it would backstop the market in short-term corporate borrowing, known as commercial paper, as part of its efforts to hold down borrowing costs. That will mostly help larger companies, but it is smaller companies that face the most acute threats to survival. Companies that sell services are in particular jeopardy.

In a normal recovery, people start making purchases they had deferred. They get the new car, the new phone, the new sunglasses. But people are less likely to make up missed meals or missed experiences. The challenge confronting policymakers is to preserve businesses — and jobs — that were viable before the crisis and can be viable in the aftermath.

The government should make low-interest loans readily available to smaller businesses but with explicit requirements for maintaining employment. Denmark, for example, is offering to cover 75% of the payroll at troubled companies — so long as recipients maintain those jobs.

Congress is rightly warier of proposals to bail out big companies, like casinos, cruise ships or airlines. Any such bailouts, which the Trump administration appears eager to orchestrate, must include conditions well beyond preserving jobs. Delta, American, Southwest and United, which booked billions of dollars in profits as a result of the 2017 tax cut, are low on cash in part because they spent $39 billion over the past five years repurchasing shares of their own stock. Boeing, also begging for a bailout, spent $35 billion on its shares. (Buybacks benefit investors by raising the value of the remaining shares.)

It is incumbent upon policymakers to ensure that airline profits during the next economic expansion are distributed more equitably. Companies must be barred from shoveling federal aid out the back door in the form of executive bonuses, dividend payments or stock buybacks. Senator Elizabeth Warren has suggested, quite reasonably, that airlines or other big companies that receive government bailouts should be required to start paying a $15 minimum wage within a year after the end of the national emergency.

It’s also not too early for Congress to lay the groundwork for a longer-term plan to support economic growth after the pandemic is over. Even the best crisis measures are not likely to avert a sharp increase in unemployment, or the destruction of businesses.

This is an opportune moment for Congress to fund an ambitious program of infrastructure works, taking advantage of low borrowing costs to finance repairs to roads and bridges and mass transportation systems; the overhaul of the nation’s electric grid, to accommodate environmentally friendly power generation; the removal of lead pipes from municipal water systems.

The federal response to the 2008 economic crisis was remarkably successful in preserving American corporations. That was critical, but it was not good enough. This time, the government needs to do a better job of helping individual Americans to weather the crisis.

Online: https://www.nytimes.com/

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March 18

The Washington Post on how hospitals are dealing with the new coronavirus:

When a coronavirus infection advances through the body in more severe cases, the lungs begin to fill with fluid and breathing becomes difficult. In a hospital intensive care unit, life-saving ventilators can help a patient survive by pumping oxygen into the impaired lungs. But what if thousands more people need hospital beds and ventilators than are available?

That is the nightmare scenario facing the United States and other nations in the pandemic. In Italy, doctors are having to make painful choices about which patients get treatment. President Trump told governors in a conference call on Monday morning, “Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment — try getting it yourselves. We will be backing you, but try getting it yourselves. Point of sales, much better, much more direct if you can get it yourself.”

That was shortsighted. The federal government ought to be doing everything in its power to make sure the worst-case scenario does not happen. Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, has proposed that the United States “needs a wartime mobilization” to boost the supply of ventilators. We’d settle for even a decent peacetime mobilization.

Whether the worst case will happen is not yet known. But an epidemiological study published Monday by Imperial College, London, focusing on Britain and the United States, makes the point that all the non-pharmaceutical measures now being proposed — social distancing of the entire population, case isolation, household quarantine if one member is sick and school closures, a so-called suppression strategy — will have to be undertaken to reduce the stress on hospitals. If a less intense strategy is followed, the study warns, it would result in an “8-fold higher peak demand on critical care beds over and above the available surge capacity” in both Britain and the United States.

Hospital beds are a major worry. In another study, published in pre-print and not yet peer reviewed, Eric S. Toner of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins and colleagues calculated that, using data from the Wuhan, China, outbreak, the demand for critical care treatment at the peak of the pandemic might be 259 people per million. Excluding the Department of Veterans Affairs system, there are 46,500 medical intensive care unit beds in the United States, or 178 per million, with 70 to 80 percent of them already occupied on any given day. Without any changes, that means that in an average metropolitan area of 1 million, there are only 36 to 53 empty, staffed intensive care beds to meet a need that might be 259. To alleviate the shortage, hospitals will have to take drastic rationing action, postpone other treatments, seek additional space, and even then, it is not clear there will be sufficient capacity. In the case of ventilators, too, there are 62,000 immediately available and another 99,000 that could be pulled out in an emergency, according to Forbes. But that might still not be sufficient, depending on the size of the pandemic.

By acting now, we may avert a hospital catastrophe. The government also should be rushing to help add supplies, using whatever means works, even “wartime mobilization” if necessary. “Do it yourself” is not leadership.

Online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/

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March 18

The Los Angles Times on vaccines:

The person credited with saving the most lives ever is Edward Jenner, inventor of the smallpox vaccine. The disease had a much higher mortality rate than the novel coronavirus that is confining many people to their homes right now; about 80% of children and 60% of adults who contracted smallpox died of it. In the 20th century alone, it killed more than 300 million people before the vaccine eradicated it worldwide in 1979.

The polio vaccine is estimated to have saved 10 million people from paralysis just since 1988, and prevented 500,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. A global vaccination campaign for measles that began in 2000 prevented an estimated 23 million deaths by 2018, the organization reported.

But despite these extraordinary victories of science over disease, too many people have forgotten or are unaware of the havoc that certain diseases visited on the world before vaccines became available to fight them. This collective amnesia has allowed for the rise of the anti-vaccine movement, whose irresponsible adherents believe vaccines exist to line the pockets of Big Pharma. They ignore the fact that the smallpox vaccine was so overwhelmingly successful at eradicating the disease that it no longer is routinely given. Then there are the wild claims that autism is linked to vaccines, based on a fraudulent study that was long ago debunked.

Are anti-vaxxers ready to start believing in vaccines again?

As social distancing and other efforts to rein in the spread of COVID-19 are ramped up, people are understandably hoping for an Edward Jenner-like miracle in the form of a vaccine that would protect against the virus. When a scourge is upon us, immunization starts looking pretty good.

There’s encouraging news on this score, and discouraging news as well. This week, people have seen what seems like a bright promise in the darkness: a volunteer in Seattle receiving the first dose of an experimental vaccine against the novel coronavirus. It was developed by a Massachusetts company called Moderna, one of dozens of companies searching for a vaccine across the world. Israeli officials recently announced that a group of research scientists there were on the verge of offering a new vaccine candidate, as well. A San Diego biotech company is also working on the problem.

The speed of development has been made possible in part through the help of Chinese scientists who worked on sequencing the genetic material of the virus that causes COVID-19. But as fast as all this sounds, don’t expect a coronavirus vaccine clinic to be opening near you anytime soon. Despite the claims of the anti-vaccine crowd that vaccines aren’t tested thoroughly enough before coming to market, they actually go through a longer and tougher process than most other drugs. Without fast-tracking, it usually takes 10 to 15 years for them to gain final approval in the United States.

The experimental vaccine injected this week isn’t being tested for effectiveness yet; it’s in the first phase of testing, which looks only at its safety for humans. At least two more phases generally follow; they look at whether a vaccine works and what the optimal dose levels are, in addition to continuing to check for safety. It’s worth noting that many proposed vaccines never make it all the way to approval; what looks promising at first often proves disappointing when subjected to thorough testing.

In urgent situations, vaccines can be fast-tracked, but fast is a relative term. Public health officials have warned that even if these first vaccines continue to look good, a fast-tracked vaccine won’t be available for 18 months, perhaps a little bit sooner. And the vaccine approach used by Moderna, using genetic material called messenger RNA, has not in the past resulted in any vaccine being brought to market, although that doesn’t mean it couldn’t work.

Even in dire situations, testing is critical. An ineffective vaccine could do more harm than good by giving people the false impression that they’re protected. But the United States and governments around the world should be supporting these vaccine-development efforts in every way possible, and fast-tracking those that appear safe and effective.

COVID-19 is upending our lives and our economy; of course we want a vaccine to stop it in its tracks as soon as possible. But come the time when — may it only happen — vaccines have rendered COVID-19 just a memory, it’s frightening to think that future generations who did not live through it may think of the vaccine as more problematic than the disease.

Online: https://www.latimes.com/

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March 18

The Wall Street Journal on former Vice President Joe Biden winning the Florida, Illinois and Arizona primaries:

Another sign of the age: Chicagoland Congressman Dan Lipinski, one of the Democratic Party’s final antiabortion holdouts, lost a primary election Tuesday by two points, or about 2,500 votes. The traditional working-class Democrats who once chose Mr. Lipinski—and his father before him—used to be a keystone in the party’s base.

But the left today tolerates no dissent on abortion. National progressives, including AOC and Bernie Sanders, piled in to defeat Mr. Lipinski. Officially, the Democratic Party’s apparatus supports its incumbents, but few bigwigs have gone out of their way to help Mr. Lipinski. Two years ago his fellow Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez called him “a dinosaur” and a holdover from the party of 1980, who should be “a relic in some museum.”

Apropos enough, Joe Biden spent decades opposed to taxpayer funding of abortion, until last summer when he revised his values to fit the times. On Tuesday Mr. Biden swept primaries in three states, carrying Florida by 39 points, Illinois by 23 and Arizona by 12, with some ballots still uncounted. In each state, he won men and women, whites and nonwhites, people with and without college degrees. Mr. Sanders is stepping back to “assess his campaign,” his staff said Wednesday.

Yet look at the exit polling of Democrats. Medicare for All registers 55% support to 33% oppose in Florida; 61% to 32% in Illinois; and 58% to 34% in Arizona. In President Obama’s old turf, Illinois, 43% say they want the nation’s next leader to be more liberal than Mr. Obama. Only 37% want a restoration of what Mr. Biden sometimes calls “our administration.”

In remarks Tuesday night, Mr. Biden again reached out to progressives. “Senator Sanders and I may disagree on tactics,” he said, “but we share a common vision.” He directed a message to young Bernie voters: “I hear you. I know what’s at stake. I know what we have to do.” When will Mr. Biden get around to reassuring moderates and independents?

It’s Joe Biden’s moment, but his agenda and Dan Lipinski’s defeat show how fast the party is moving in Bernie Sanders’s direction.

Online: https://www.wsj.com/

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March 17

The Chicago Tribune on how to help small businesses, restaurants and bars:

For most people, the measures required to cope with the coronavirus epidemic are inconvenient and stressful. But for restaurants and bars, the effect is severe and quite possibly disastrous. Being forced to close their doors to patrons through March 30, as ordered Sunday by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, not only will cost them revenue, but is likely to put some at risk of closing for good.

That would be bad for their owners, bad for their employees, bad for their suppliers, bad for neighboring businesses and bad for their customers. The economic repercussions of this mandate, necessary though it is, will be far-reaching. So if you value that mom-and-pop diner and lively corner tavern, look for ways to help ensure that they will still be around once the crisis passes.

You could hardly blame those who own or work at these businesses if they’re gripped by panic. “Right now, first and foremost we’re in a fight for our survival,” Rob Katz, co-owner of Boka Restaurant Group, told the Tribune. “Fixed expenses are incredibly high in our industry. And if cash flow ceases to exist, things get critical very, very quickly.”

Some dining establishments have pledged to help their workers get through the crisis. But others have had to reduce hours or cut staff, at least temporarily. Employees who depend heavily on tips will be especially hurt. The kitchen workers, bartenders and servers deprived of their usual income may be unable to pay rent or buy groceries.

What can you do? A couple of solutions come to mind. The first is to order from those places that stay open offering food for via delivery, takeout or curbside pickup. Those orders will keep their kitchens busy and their income from vanishing. It will allow some workers, if not all, to keep working. It will keep managers from having to destroy — that is, to waste — fresh food as it spoils.

Buying out in lieu of dining out also allows you to save for another time all the rice, beans and frozen pizza you’ve stockpiled. And maybe you could use an excuse to get out of the house in a way that doesn’t violate the social distancing rules recommended by public health authorities.

Another recourse is to buy gift cards from these places for future use. That way, they get the money now, when the need is dire, and you get to look forward to a good meal or night out later — with the tab already paid. This option could be particularly useful for places that normally do a brisk lunch trade from workers in nearby buildings, which may be far away from those workers when they’re staying home.

It’s not only bars and restaurants that are affected by this disruption. Any small business or nonprofit that caters to the public and is shut down will also be deprived vital revenue during this period. If your favorite music venue is closed, you might order tickets online for a show that’s weeks or months away. If there’s a theater you like that can’t stage plays, you might make a tax-deductible donation.

Once all of us start thinking about all the people we normally encounter who are being hurt by the crisis, we’ll come up with our own ideas. Then let’s put them to use.

Online: https://www.chicagotribune.com/

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March 16

The Toronto Star on Canada closing its borders to the United States amid the spread of the new coronavirus

As the coronavirus went from a dot on the horizon to the social and economic crisis it is now, governments have remained just behind the curve.

The measures they dismissed just a few days ago as unnecessary are now promoted as essential. In fact, they will almost certainly turn out to be too little, too late.

Into that category falls the Trudeau government’s decision on Monday to close Canada’s borders to most non-residents — with the glaring exception of Americans.

Weeks ago the government refused to bar entry to travellers coming from the countries then seen as the “hotspots” for COVID-19: China, Iran and Italy.

And as recently as Friday, the federal health minister said closing borders was not justified by science and might be counter-productive.

Yet on Monday, the government took that dramatic step, arguing that the situation had worsened over the weekend to the point where public health authorities were recommending such a move.

Despite that, American citizens are not included in the ban — although they, like Canadians returning from abroad, are instructed to self-isolate for 14 days, with some exceptions like pilots and truck drivers. Perhaps the bet is that such a requirement will deter all but the most determined Americans from crossing into this country.

We can sympathize with the government as it races to keep up with a disease that is spreading at exponential speed.

Measures that would have seemed an overreach just weeks or even days ago now seem half-hearted. And in the case of including Americans in the ban, the plain fact is that the government must take into account Canada’s vital relationship with the United States, a level of integration that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called “quite particular.”

As much as Trudeau insisted repeatedly that his government is simply following the guidance of public health experts, it is obvious that wider considerations have were factored into this decision.

On the face of it, it makes no sense to exempt American citizens. They are by far the largest number of non-Canadians who enter this country every day, and thanks in large part to the bumbling of the Trump administration there’s no reason to think the United States will turn out to have any special resistance to the spread of COVID-19.

On the contrary. The failure of the U.S. to provide widespread testing for the coronavirus is already a scandal, as is President Donald Trump’s insistence for many crucial weeks that the crisis was just something hoked up by his political enemies to discredit his administration.

All that makes it reasonable to think Canada is as vulnerable to coronavirus coming in over the border as it is to planes landing from more distant shores.

Indeed, the prime minister left himself some wiggle room by saying U.S. citizens will be allowed over the border “at this time.” Pressed on this point, he added that “we’ll take the necessary steps when they become necessary.”

If the trajectory of COVID-19 continues on its past course, closing the border to all non-Canadians may well be declared “necessary” in record time.

In the meantime, the government has time to work with Washington to make sure the temporary ban on people doesn’t cripple the massive cross-border trading relationship so vital to Canada’s economy.

This becomes even more important as health authorities at all levels urge even more far-reaching measures: closing restaurants and bars and just about everywhere else where people gather, and recommending that people simply stay home, whether they have symptoms of the disease or not.

Online: https://www.thestar.com/

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