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All the Ways Coronavirus Caught America Unprepared

All the Ways Coronavirus Caught America Unprepared

Thursday, 21 May, 2020 - 04:45

Not long after the Sept. 11 attacks, Warren Buffett wrote the classic line, “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.” In the current crisis, which is kind of like a 9/11 that never ends, we’re learning the entire country was naked.

That we weren’t ready for a pandemic was obvious. We’re still scrambling for adequate medical supplies and testing equipment. But there are other weaknesses making this disaster worse than it had to be:

Nursing homes have been a particularly nasty vector of coronavirus spread, an indirect result of how poorly their workers are paid, writes Bloomberg’s editorial board. Many work in multiple homes to make ends meet, helping spread the disease. These people need better pay and health benefits so they can stay in one place and take time off when necessary.

The disease has also exposed the vulnerability of America’s food supply, notes Amanda Little. It’s too centralized and inflexible, so when the disease hit we suddenly had millions of unemployed people clamoring for food, even as tons of it was being destroyed. There’s got to be a better way, and it could start with a new Department of Food Security.

Global supply chains, meanwhile, have gone from a big benefit to American industry to a huge problem as factories shut down around the world. To avoid shortages in future calamities, US manufacturing will increasingly come back home — or at least to Mexico, writes Brooke Sutherland. Unfortunately, much of it will be done by robots.

A universal basic income could help American workers get over the whole robots-taking-jobs thing. And this pandemic has made UBI suddenly look much more reasonable, write Tyler Cowen and Garry Kasparov. But the US still needs more-productive economic growth to help pay for it first.

More-productive schooling might help with that. Tweens and teenagers are on to something when they complain about sitting in a classroom all day. All the remote-learning we’re suddenly doing hints at a future of education that is more flexible and active, writes Andreas Kluth. We just have to make sure it also benefits all students equally, another problem this crisis has exposed.

It’s hard to call big cities a national weakness, but their density may have helped spread Covid-19. They now have to calculate how to carve out more space to let people shop, eat and commute safely, writes Chris Bryant. Oh, and keep out all the extra cars people will suddenly be driving.

One of Elon Musk’s solutions to that last problem is tunnels for carrying Teslas instead of trains, for “individualized mass transit.” Sounds like you just invented the subway, but vastly slower and more expensive! Maybe another of our big pre-Covid weaknesses was paying too much attention to Musk and other Silicon Valley blowhards, writes Tim O’Brien. Somebody like Buffett may offer a better model. He’s at least more quotable.

We just wrapped up a few weeks of corporate-earnings reports during the worst quarter for the economy since the Great Depression. In the Before Times, earnings calls were just chances to mock suck-ups who say “Great quarter, guys!” Now they may be windows into the uncertain future of the economy. Beth Williams rounds up a cast of Bloomberg Opinion thousands — including Brian Chappatta, Liam Denning, Andrea Felsted, Tae Kim, Tara Lachapelle, Max Nisen and Brooke Sutherland — to talk about what they learned during this quarter’s calls.

One very important company playing it close to the vest is Apple Inc. The maker of that thing you’re constantly staring at in your hand declined last month to offer a forecast for the June quarter, rattling investors. But one of its top suppliers, Foxconn Technology Group, did make a prediction, writes Tim Culpan. It ain’t pretty.

As America stumbles headlong into reopening businesses and beaches across the country, we can at least take some comfort in knowing we’ve learned a bit more about the relative riskiness of various activities. We are not so likely to catch coronavirus from chance encounters in grocery stores or on jogging paths, writes Faye Flam, while prolonged exposure in enclosed spaces is much riskier. Govern your paranoia levels accordingly.

Because we can’t stand not to know what happens next, many of us will be staring at computer models purporting to tell us the shape of outbreaks across the country. Some of these are much less useful than others, notes Cathy O’Neil. White House adviser Kevin Hassett used a model to predict US virus deaths would fall to zero by today, for example. Spoiler alert: No. Cathy offers a helpful field guide to some better models.


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