Opinion | The Year We Were Asked to Pick: Your Economy or Your Life

The end of the year has been awkward for Gov. Andrew Cuomo. As he promotes his new, self-congratulatory book about navigating New York through its first coronavirus wave of in the spring, he is also battling a new surge of cases.

He’s not been too happy. At a news conference in late November, he lashed out at his constituents.

“I just want to make it very simple,” he said. “If you socially distanced and you wore a mask, and you were smart, none of this would be a problem. It’s all self-imposed. It’s all self-imposed. If you didn’t eat the cheesecake, you wouldn’t have a weight problem.”

His blunt rhetoric exemplifies how political leaders — in Washington and in red and blue states — are responding to the Covid-19 crisis. They’ve increasingly decided to treat the pandemic as an issue of personal responsibility — much as our country confronts other social programs, like poverty or joblessness.

Yes, it’s absolutely critical that we wear masks and continue to keep our distance. But these individual actions were never meant to be our primary or only response to the pandemic.

Instead, more than 10 months into this crisis, our government has largely failed to act. There is no national infrastructure for testing or tracing. There is not much of an organized rollout plan for vaccines. States have been put in a bind by federal failure, but even so, many governors have dithered on taking large-scale actions to suppress the current surge.

As Governor Cuomo excoriated New Yorkers about mask-wearing, he took no responsibility for not shutting down indoor dining for weeks, well into the new spike.

“We’re putting a lot of faith in individual actions and individual collective wisdom to do the right thing,” Rachel Werner, the executive director of the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics at the University of Pennsylvania, told me, “but it’s without any leadership.”

It’s no great mystery what the government could do to control the virus. Every expert I spoke to agreed on the No. 1 priority: testing.

“The primary thing we really should have had is ubiquitous testing, and the government has just not chosen to do that,” said Ashish Jha, the dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University and an early adviser to the White House Covid task force.

States can do only so much with their limited resources to roll out a testing regime; it requires the resources and heft of the federal government. And while the year-end relief legislation provides more money for testing, it’s not nearly enough, particularly for producing and sustaining rapid testing.

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Dr. Jha said that early in his time on the task force there was a lot of interest in building a robust testing system. “But it was killed by the political leadership in the White House,” he said.

Then, the Trump administration allowed financial aid to businesses and households to dry up during some of the worst months of the pandemic — and only just struck a last-minute deal to partly revive it.

The inconsistent aid had a cascading effect. Governors like Mr. Cuomo, who don’t have the budgetary ability of the federal government to extend substantial business relief, ended up in a lose-lose situation as the virus surged in late summer and fall. New York had to keep high-risk businesses open, it was argued, so that they could earn whatever meager revenue they could. But what is “the economy” worth if it comes at the cost of our physical well-being, our very lives?

Calling Covid restrictions “Orwellian,” Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, said on “Fox & Friends” in late November that “the American people are a freedom-loving people” who “make responsible health decisions as individuals.” That, she said, is “the American way.”

The Second Stimulus

Answers to Your Questions About the Stimulus Bill

Updated Dec 28, 2020

The economic relief package will issue payments of $600 and distribute a federal unemployment benefit of $300 for at least 10 weeks. Find more about the measure and what’s in it for you. For details on how to get assistance, check out our Hub for Help.

    • Will I receive another stimulus payment? Individual adults with adjusted gross income on their 2019 tax returns of up to $75,000 a year would receive a $600 payment, and heads of households making up to $112,500 and a couple (or someone whose spouse died in 2020) earning up to $150,000 a year would get twice that amount. If they have dependent children, they would also get $600 for each child. People with incomes just above these levels would receive a partial payment that declines by $5 for every $100 in income.
    • When might my payment arrive? Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNBC that he expected the first payments to go out before the end of the year. But it will be a while before all eligible people receive their money.
    • Does the agreement affect unemployment insurance? Lawmakers agreed to extend the amount of time that people can collect unemployment benefits and restart an extra federal benefit that is provided on top of the usual state benefit. But instead of $600 a week, it would be $300. That would last through March 14.
    • I am behind on my rent or expect to be soon. Will I receive any relief? The agreement would provide $25 billion to be distributed through state and local governments to help renters who have fallen behind. To receive assistance, households would have to meet several conditions: Household income (for 2020) cannot exceed more than 80 percent of the area median income; at least one household member must be at risk of homelessness or housing instability; and individuals must qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced financial hardship — directly or indirectly — because of the pandemic. The agreement said assistance would be prioritized for families with lower incomes and that have been unemployed for three months or more.

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