History will not be kind to government at any level for its inaction in the face of COVID-19 in February. Sadly, we have squandered our time in March and April as well.
Our inability to plan for a timely transition into the next phase of the pandemic will cost California dearly in the weeks and months ahead.
In my March 25 column, I urged “the government (to) develop and model (public health) alternatives on the assumption that the stay at home order will successfully flatten the curve.” I reasoned that we should “enter our ‘new normal’ phase of managing the virus (through more narrowly-tailored stay-at-home orders for the most vulnerable and ongoing public social distancing measures) as soon as possible to reduce the massive collateral costs of near-maximum social distancing.”
It has been obvious for two weeks that California’s statewide stay-at-home order has achieved its intended purpose — it has more than flattened the hospitalization curve.
During this time, Gov. Gavin Newsom has announced that we will coordinate with Oregon and Washington (but not Nevada and Arizona?) on making the transition into the next phase of the pandemic, pivoted to six indicators that he said will guide his decision to lift the stay-at-home order, and stated that that “localism” will be “determinative” in the transition.
Earlier this week, he made it clear that localism is a one-way street — localities can impose more severe public health restrictions than the statewide stay-at-home order, but they cannot adopt less restrictive measures to meet their unique circumstances because infected people may (continue to) travel throughout the state.
In effect, Newom is now telling us that despite our successes, we must all to stay home to prevent an “Escape from L.A.,” which accounts for a disproportionate share of COVID-19 fatalities and cases in California.
After 34 days of staying at home, we are no closer to having an actual plan for exiting the stay-at-home order than we were on Day One, despite the fact that the fatality rate from the virus is far lower than previously estimated.
What is happening to California while Newsom fiddles? With each day that passes, the stay-at-home order is creating catastrophic collateral consequences. Our economy continues to sink to unprecedented lows.
If it has not already done so, our unemployment rate will soon exceed the highest rate seen during the peak of the Great Recession. Some economists believe we may approach unemployment levels that rival the Great Depression.
Either way, massive unemployment will push our poverty levels — already the highest in the nation — to astronomical new heights. The state is now burning from more than COVID-19.
With increased poverty will come a predictable and tragic parade of horribles — homelessness, food insecurity, and worsening physical and mental health for millions of Californians. Indeed, it has already started — many foodbanks are already straining to meet demand. With each day that passes under the stay-at-home order, we are damaging thousands of lives, often irreparably.
If we truly care about saving lives in California, we cannot continue to ignore the collateral consequences of our response to COVID-19. As the California Department of Public Health has recognized, “poverty is an important public health issue. It limits access to basic material necessities such as housing, food, education, jobs and transportation, and thereby impacts the ability to live a healthy life.”
Our foodbanks put it more bluntly: “Food insecurity has serious impacts on an individual’s well-being, which may result in poor school attendance and performance, lowered workplace productivity, and physical and mental health problems. Individuals struggling with food insecurity have to make tough decisions that no one should face. No family should have to decide between buying groceries or paying rent, no senior should have to choose between food and medicine, and no parent should have to skip a meal in order for their children to eat.”
Not surprisingly, given these agonizing daily choices, individuals thrust into poverty face serious mental health challenges as well, ranging from depression to anxiety to substance abuse.
Even for those lucky enough to escape poverty and COVID-19 over the weeks and months ahead, our response to the pandemic may yet cause them grave harm. As The Wall Street Journal and many others have recognized, people have been forced to forego critical medical care during the pandemic.
Today, The Journal said, “it’s impossible to forecast the human cost from this suspension of care. Aggressive cancers may go undetected. Chronic conditions that have been controlled with regular checkups and medicines may worsen. While doctors can prescribe drugs over the phone or web, physical exams and medical imaging are needed to diagnose many ailments.”
As one Chicago orthopedic surgeon recently wrote, the toll from this suspension of care could exceed the toll from the virus itself: “As a nation, we are in grave danger of pushing aside every aspect of medical care that is not related to COVID-19, and if we do not act quickly to balance our efforts, the conditions we are ignoring may incur a human cost that could far overshadow that of the virus.”
The bell may yet toll for those who manage to escape both poverty and the virus.
California’s prolonged stay-at-home order has created many ticking time bombs. With our economy in tatters and more employers closing permanently each day, we cannot count on a quick rebound in employment when we finally make the transition into the next phase of the pandemic. The private sector will not be able to stem the poverty pandemic.
With tax revenues plummeting, the state and counties will not have the financial resources to combat poverty and improve public health. Will the federal government come to our rescue? How many more aid packages can it put together when it is drowning in debt?
Will our nonprofit organizations be able to offset the lack of government resources? Will our health-care system be able to respond to non-COVID-19 illnesses in the months ahead?
Although the challenges we have created for ourselves are predictable, the policy responses are anything but. So who is currently working on the “Marshall Plan” we will need to repair our state?
As a result of our failure to plan for the success of the stay-at-home order, we are gravely damaging the lives of potentially millions of Californians and creating public policy challenges that will likely have a greater impact on our state than the COVID-19 pandemic itself.
We had better start planning to meet them. We cannot afford to make the same mistake yet again.
— Brian Goebel served as a senior official in the Treasury and Homeland Security departments following 9/11. Since 2005, he has founded successful consulting and analytics firms serving governments around the globe; launched 2040 Matters, a nonpartisan public policy blog dedicated to restoring the American Dream for younger Americans; and was elected to the Montecito Water District Board of Directors in 2018. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.