BALTIMORE – Speaking from behind his face mask the other day, from a healthy distance well beyond the required six feet, the U.S. postman who delivers my mail says he gets tested “three or four times every day” for coronavirus.
“Every day?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says. “Got a couple of hospitals and a couple of these senior living places on my route. They take my temperature and make me fill out some forms every time I go in. You get used to it, what the hell.”
“Happy just to be working, huh?”
“You kidding?” he says “The U.S. Postal Service goes down, this whole country goes down.”
He’s got a point. But there’s a larger one in there. Millions would now swap places for any kind of employment in the midst of this plague, no matter the minor annoyances or the major dangers.
And, egged on by this president, who apparently wants to jump-start the U.S. economy whatever the cost to human life, some of them are out there now, in pockets all over the country.
In his latest tweet-frenzy, President Trump urged supporters in three states to “LIBERATE” themselves, no matter the warnings from medical and science experts or the stay-at-home orders from governors.
Trump’s urgings reached all the way to Annapolis on Saturday, where hundreds filled the sidewalks and cars circled the State House, horns honking, telling Gov. Larry Hogan to “Re-Open Maryland” for business. Many of the protesters wore no masks. Many had signs.
One car bore a message reading, “That face mask you were duped into wearing symbolizes you losing your freedom of speech.” Below, it read, “Government is the only non-essential business.”
Another sign read, “They can’t stay closed forever.”
No, they can’t, but it already seems like forever to millions of anxious people. They have no jobs. They’re trying to wrestle money from overburdened unemployment offices, and they’re wondering how they’ll pay their rent, or put food on the table. To these folks, any kind of job is considered a blessing, and any demonstration worth the risk.
More than 22 million unemployment claims have been filed nationwide in the past four weeks. In Maryland, 61,770 filed for unemployment benefits last week, and nearly 300,000 have filed in the last month.
And the very stable genius – as Trump has dubbed himself – chooses this moment to encourage what now feels like anarchy. He incites people to demonstrate against health warnings. So great is his hunger to get the economy humming that he’s willing to risk people’s lives and ignore what the experts might be saying.
More than ever, it’s a reminder of conditions facing millions of Americans even in the best of times – of that thin line between solvency and economic collapse, and that single paycheck that keeps entire families afloat from week to week.
Millions of those families consider themselves “middle class,” or “working class.” Both terms implied a certain stability in their lives, which is now gone.
They’re the ones who have struggled to hang on to their finances (and their self-image) over the past several decades, while the stock market’s boomed and the rich have gotten unfathomably richer. On Capitol Hill, the two parties have been duking it out over who needs stimulus money the most – businesses, or working people.
But this is just a variation on a theme – trickle-down economics – that goes back all the way to Ronald Reagan and was seen vividly in the 2017 tax bill that Trump’s Republicans pushed through.
As Jane Mayer writes in this week’s New Yorker, that bill “rewarded the (Republican) Party’s biggest donors by bestowing more than 80 percent of its largesse on the wealthiest 1 percent, by cutting corporate tax rates, and by preserving the carried-interest loophole, which is exploited by private-equity firms and hedge funds.”
As the coronavirus death toll reaches about 40,000 around the country, this is still a dangerous time for America to “re-open,” and a dangerous time for this president to urge crowded street demonstrations.
But it’s a useful time to consider millions of people’s paralyzing economic troubles – and realize that the current conditions are such a short, disastrous step from the way things are for millions of families, even in normal times.
Feature image: Screenshot from YouTube.
Michael Olesker, columnist for the News American, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Examiner has spent a quarter of a century writing about the city he loves.He is the author of five previous books, including Michael Olesker’s Baltimore: If You Live Here, You’re Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s, all published by Johns Hopkins Press.