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Tomgram: Rajan Menon, On the Frontlines of Covid-19 Suffering

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

In the midst of the worst pandemic since 1918, one only growing ever more severe as cases, hospitalizations, and deaths rise precipitously, if you haven't lost your job or had your hours and wages cut back severely, if you can cover your rent or make your mortgage payments, you may not have noticed but -- as Congress does nothing and state legislatures are largely hemmed in by a lack of funds -- "more than 14 million American households are currently at risk of eviction and have an estimated $25 billion in rental debt, according to a report by Stout, a global investment bank and advisory firm. And 4.9 million of them are likely to receive eviction notices in January after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eviction moratorium expires on December 31."

I wrote that as a single monumental sentence (plus an extra one inside the quote), because it's a monumental fact of American life: millions more Americans potentially left homeless in a raging pandemic. That, in turn, only guarantees yet more Covid-19 victims from among evictees living in nightmarish, crowded quarters of one sort or another or simply finding themselves out on the streets of American cities. It's hard even to take in if it's not happening to you (and maybe even if it is). In fact, behind all the pandemic (and vaccine) stories now filling the media, as TomDispatch regular Rajan Menon suggests today, lie any number of nightmarish tales that were already common in a country of raging inequality before the coronavirus landed on our shores but that are now intensifying in ways that should be (but aren't) headlines everywhere. Tom

Hunger in America
Covid-19 and the Nightmare of Food Insecurity
By Rajan Menon

As autumn fades and winter looms, the dire predictions public-health experts made about Covid-19 have, unfortunately, proven all-too-accurate. On October 27th, 74,379 people were infected in the United States; less than a month and a half later, on December 9th, that number had soared to 218,677, while the 2020 total has just surpassed 15 million, a number no other country, not even India, which has a population three times that of the U.S., has surpassed.

And now, it seems, the third wave of the virus has arrived. As recently as late October, the embattled Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, warned that "we are in for a whole lot of hurt" and that infections could reach 100,000 a day. As it happens, he was wildly optimistic. A little more than a month later, there were more than twice that many. Is it possible, however, that the current surge is due in part to increased testing, as President Trump and others have regularly claimed? Here's the problem. Even if that theory were true, it can't account for the spiraling death toll, which is now more than 300,000 and could hit 450,000 by February, according to Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nor can it explain the daily Covid-19 hospitalizations, the first round of which peaked at 59,712 on July 23rd, dropped pretty steadily to a low of 28,606 on September 20th, and then started to soar, reaching 106,671 on December 9th.

Though big-picture statistics like these should help us grasp the staggering magnitude of our current public-health crisis, what they don't reveal is the searing effects it's had on the lives of millions of Americans, even those who have managed to evade the virus or haven't seen friends or family fall ill or die from Covid-19. The pandemic has been especially hard for those on the front lines: doctors, nurses, and other hospital workers who experience battle fatigue and despair while besieged by suffering and deaths, visceral reminders of their own vulnerability.

In society at large, precautions -- lockdowns, social distancing, limits on festive gatherings -- necessary to keep Covid-19 at bay have increased loneliness and social isolation. Contrary to early expectations, reports of abuse and violence within families haven't actually spiraled, but experts suggest that may be because the victims, confined to their homes alongside their tormentors, are finding it harder to seek help and fear reporting what's happening to them. As for children, teachers are no longer seeing their pupils in person as regularly and so are less able to spot the typical warning signs of mistreatment.

Thankfully, the pandemic has yet to increase this country's already alarming suicide rate, but the same can't be said for levels of stress and depression, both of which have risen noticeably. School closures and the move to online learning have forced parents, particularly women, to scramble for childcare and to work less, even though many of them were barely getting by while working full-time, or stop working altogether, often a genuine disaster in poor families.

Not surprisingly, people who have been laid off or had their work hours reduced have fallen behind on their mortgage and rent payments. Although various federal and state moratoriums on such payments, as well as on evictions and foreclosures, were enacted, such protections will eventually end. And the moratoriums don't negate renters' or homeowners' obligations to settle accounts with their bankers and landlords somewhere down the line (which for many Americans may, in the end, prove an impossibility).

Food and the Pandemic

Apart from the illness and death it causes, perhaps the most poignant consequence of Covid-19 has been the way it's increased what's called "food insecurity" across the United States. That ungainly term doesn't refer to the chronic food scarcity and undernourishment, which afflicts more than 800 million people in poor countries, but rather to the disruption of people's typical food-consumption patterns. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) distinguishes between what it calls low food security ("reduced quality, variability, or desirability of diet") and the very low version of the same ("multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake").

Surveys by the USDA and the Census Bureau show that both variants have risen steeply during the pandemic. Just before the coronavirus struck, 35 million Americans, 11 million of them children, experienced food insecurity, the lowest figure in two decades. This year, those numbers are projected to reach 54 million and 18 million respectively. In 2018, 4% of American adults reported that at least some members of their family did not have enough to eat; by July 2020, that figure had hit 11%, according to a study by Northwestern University's Food Research and Action Center, and will only increase as the pandemic worsens.

Income supplements provided by the $2.2 trillion CARES Act that Congress passed in March in response to the economic problems created by Covid-19, increases in the government's Supplementary Nutritional Program (SNAP), and the Pandemic Electronic Benefit (P-EBT), which helps parents whose children no longer get free or subsidized school lunches, have made a difference -- but not enough to make up for lost or reduced income, lost homes, and other disasters of this moment. And sadly, any follow-up to the CARES Act, assuming Congress reaches some kind of agreement on its terms before the current legislation expires at the end of December, will almost certainly be far less generous than the original law. The SNAP increases already excluded the poorest seven million households that were then receiving the maximum amount, and the new increases now under discussion in Congress would add less than one dollar to a four-person family's maximum daily benefit. P-EBT expired in most states at the end of September, in some as early as July.

That food insecurity has "skyrocketed," as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities puts it, during the pandemic despite government assistance shouldn't come as a surprise. Millions of people have lost their jobs. Some have seen their earnings diminished because of furloughs, wage cuts, freezes, or reduced working hours. Others have looked for jobs in vain and finally given up (but aren't included in official unemployment statistics). Millions of adults have children who no longer receive those free or subsidized lunches because of the switch, in whole or part, to online teaching. Worse yet, as pandemic-induced firings, layoffs, and wage cuts have reduced incomes, and so consumer purchasing power, food prices, especially for meat, fish, and eggs, have only risen. Such costs have increased for other reasons as well. The pandemic has disrupted supply networks, national and international. Leery consumers, anticipating shortages or seeking to reduce trips to grocery stores to avoid being infected by Covid-19, have also resorted to panic buying and the stockpiling of food and other necessities.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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