Most of Europe and all 50 US states are in various stages of “reopening”. But why, exactly?
The pandemic is still with us. After the first tentative steps to ease the lockdown in Germany – the most successful large European country in halting the spread of the virus, thanks to massive testing – the disease has shown signs of spreading faster.
At least Germany is opening slowly and carefully, as is the rest of the EU.
By contrast, the US – with the highest number of deaths and most haphazard response to Covid-19 of any advanced nation – is opening chaotically, each state on its own. Some are lifting restrictions overnight.
Researchers expect the reopenings to cause thousands of additional deaths.
Two weeks after Texas’ governor, Greg Abbott, began reopening, the state experienced the single-highest rise in cases since the beginning of the pandemic. Since Nebraska reopened on 4 May, Covid-19 cases in Colfax county alone surged 1,390%.
Experts warn that Dallas, Houston, Florida’s Gold Coast, the entire state of Alabama and several other places in the south that have rapidly reopened their economies are in danger of a second wave of coronavirus infections over the next four weeks.
Last Monday, Ford reopened its large North American assembly plants. On Tuesday, it closed and reopened its Chicago Assembly plant twice in less than 24 hours, after two workers tested positive for Covid-19. On Wednesday, Ford temporarily shut its Dearborn, Michigan truck plant after an employee tested positive, then promptly resumed operations.
So why “reopen” so abruptly, when Covid-19 continues to claim lives?
The main reason given is to get the economy moving again. But this begs the question of why an economy exists in the first place, other than to promote the wellbeing of people within it.
Both Ford plants are vital to the company’s profitability, and that profitability is important to jobs in the midwest. But surely the wellbeing of Ford workers, their families, the people of Chicago and Dearborn and others are more important.
A related argument is that workers are clamoring to return to their jobs. “People want to get back to work,” Trump has asserted repeatedly. Fox News host Sean Hannity claims people are “dying to get back to work”, seemingly unaware of the irony of his words.
Polls suggest otherwise. Americans whose jobs require them to leave home express trepidation about doing so: 60% fear exposing their families to Covid-19.
Many Americans must return to work because they need the money, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Rich economies can support their people for years if necessary. During the second world war, America shut down most of its economy for nearly four years.
The obstacle right now is a lack of political will to provide such support, at least until testing and tracing provide reasonable assurance the pandemic is contained.
Although nearly half of all US households report lost employment income since mid-March, extra jobless benefits enacted by Congress are only starting to trickle out now. Trump and the Republican Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, refuse to extend them beyond 31 July.
Meanwhile, states are denying benefits to anyone whose company has called them back.
Finally, Trump and his enablers argue that reopening is a matter of “freedom”. He has called on citizens to “liberate” their states from public-health restrictions. Fox News personalities have decried what they call denials of “basic freedoms”.
Armed protesters stormed the Michigan state capitol, demanding the “freedom” to work. At the Kentucky statehouse, protesters shouted “We want to work!” and “We’re free citizens!”
But the supposed “freedom” to work is a cruel joke when people are forced to choose between putting food on the table or risking their lives. It’s the same perverse ideology that put workers in harm’s way in the dawn of the industrial age, when robber barons demanded workers be “free” to work in dangerous factories 12 hours a day.
In truth, there is no good reason to reopen when the pandemic is still raging: not getting the economy moving again, or workers clamoring to return to work, or the cost of extended income support, or because workers should be “free” to endanger themselves.
Let’s be clear. The pressure to reopen the economy is coming from businesses that want to return to profitability, and from Trump, who wants to run for re-election in an economy that appears to be recovering.
Neither is reason enough.
Robert Reich, a former US secretary of labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few and The Common Good. His new book, The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It, is out now. He is a columnist for Guardian US
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