Joe Biden will begin rolling out his plan on Thursday to repair the U.S. economy as he seeks to improve his standing with voters on one of the few issues where he lags President Donald Trump.
Biden will frame the economic argument for the remainder of his campaign with a speech near his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, a place that’s been synonymous with the blue-collar workers who helped Trump win the state in 2016. He will unveil policies intended to foster manufacturing and encourage innovation, adopting some ideas from his progressive primary rivals but avoiding the big-ticket proposals like the Green New Deal.
The former vice president’s plan is divided into four areas, the first of which he’ll address in more detail on Thursday: a push to buy American and create manufacturing jobs, costing at least $700 billion; building infrastructure and clean energy, advancing racial equity; and modernizing the “caring” economy such as child-care and elder-care workers and domestic aides. His campaign said he will follow Thursday’s speech with detailed policy proposals before the Democratic National Convention, which begins Aug. 17.
On Thursday, he’ll unveil plans for $400 billion in additional federal government purchases of products made by American workers over his first term — based on a proposal that Senator Elizabeth Warren, a former opponent, offered during the primaries — as well as $300 billion for federally funded research and development. In all, the Biden campaign estimates that its proposals on manufacturing and buying American will create 5 million jobs. It did not offer a plan for how to pay for those measures.
With Americans enduring a recession because of the coronavirus pandemic, Biden is homing in on the economy, the only policy area where a slim majority of voters favor Trump’s approach. In a recent New York Times-Siena College poll of registered voters in six critical electoral states, 55% preferred Trump on the economy while 39% preferred Biden.
Now the Democratic nominee, Biden has shifted to a general-election footing where he also needs to attract Republicans weary of the Trump administration and independents to win in November.
There was small progress toward recovery in the jobs numbers released Thursday. Applications for unemployment benefits in the U.S. declined last week by more than projected, easing concerns of a renewed downturn in the labor market after several large states reported an increase in coronavirus cases.
“I think there is going to be a broad-based view not just among Democrats but among independents and even some Republicans that this plan and its substance is matched to the moment,” said Jake Sullivan, a top policy aide to Biden. “It is focused on trying to drive job creation fast so that we don’t have scarring, so that we don’t have people unemployed long term, so that we don’t have businesses dying.”
Aware that any positions Biden takes are parsed for outreach to the left, advisers argued he gets to truly progressive results, just at his own pace.
“Biden wants to get to the same place that many to his left want to get to but he firmly believes that it will take an incremental path to get there and that you can’t leapfrog the political reality that he has come to know in many decades in politics,” said Jared Bernstein, who is advising the campaign after serving as Biden’s chief economic adviser in the vice president’s office.
“So his destination on many key issues, particularly on the economy and health care, is very similar to the further left but his path to get there is going to be more incremental,” Bernstein added.
The plan for the U.S. government to buy American-made products would cost $100 billion a year over four years, and would purchase things like clean vehicles and clean energy; materials to prepare for future public health crises such as ventilators and masks; materials for infrastructure projects such as steel, concrete and equipment; and telecommunications. Warren had proposed a $150 billion a year for a decade to be spent on procurement of clean energy.
Biden would also work with other countries to renegotiate the Government Procurement Agreement at the World Trade Organization to ensure the U.S. and its allies can spend taxpayer dollars on growing investment in their own countries.
On trade, a senior Biden adviser, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity said the candidate would also study current tariffs as well as potential trade agreements he wants to negotiate. His advisers declined to comment directly on what would happen to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump abandoned in 2017, or existing tariffs under a Biden administration.
Trump has made buy-American policies and protecting the U.S. steel and aluminum industry a centerpiece of his administration but some domestic manufacturers have complained his actions didn’t go far enough.
The $300 billion R&D plan would encompass all 50 states and would increase direct federal programs such as the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy and Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), a health innovation entity that Biden had previously proposed. He would also direct money to support innovative small businesses and workforce development programs.
Each idea may seem small but “the beauty of these plans is in the totality” of everything that Biden will be proposing on the economy in the coming weeks, Bernstein said.
Biden’s advisers said the plan, once fully revealed, would be ambitious.
“This will be the largest mobilization of public investments in procurement, infrastructure and R&D since World War II — and that’s just a part of the plan,” Sullivan said.
The senior Biden official said the campaign wasn’t ready to detail where the money for these programs would come from. Recurring programs would be financed with additional tax proposals but some measures might need to be treated as stimulus to help the economy recover and would be dependent upon economic conditions when Biden takes office, the official said.
Most of the more progressive ideas, like the Green New Deal and other large jobs programs that also hearken back to Franklin Roosevelt’s policies in the Great Depression, would likely be left behind at the beginning in favor of a more step-by-step approach, the Biden campaign says.
Steph Sterling, vice president for advocacy and policy at the Roosevelt Institute, and others on the left say they would like to see Biden contemplate a jobs guarantee or other measures that would be more in the vein of Roosevelt’s New Deal.
A Biden adviser said such policies are not being seriously considered, though the candidate has proposed creating a U.S. Public Health Jobs Corps that would employ 100,000 people.
Biden offered some parameters in April.
“Look at the institutional changes we can make without us becoming a socialist country or any of that malarkey that we can make to provide the opportunities to change the institutional drawbacks.”
If Biden wins the presidency, he will be walking into a far different economy than he would have faced before the pandemic.
“If Biden is president he will be up against this just incredibly, incredibly weak economy,” said Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, and a chief economist at the U.S. Labor Department in the Obama administration. “Regardless of what’s going on with COVID, whether there’s a vaccine or widespread mask-wearing or not, it will be a hugely depressed economy.”
Even with improvement in jobs and consumer spending that’s been better than analysts expected, the U.S. economy remains in a deep hole, and most forecasters expect only a gradual recovery. Unemployment, at 11.1% in June, is higher than any time in the 80 years before the pandemic. Black and Latino unemployment rates are even higher.
Since mid-June, economic gains have slowed as virus cases accelerated in a variety of states, leading local officials to pause or reverse re-openings. And if lawmakers allow the expiration of extra unemployment benefits and small-business aid in coming weeks, jobs and consumption could take a further hit.
Jobvite’s annual Job Seeker Nation Report found sharp changes in survey responses between February and April.
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Sometimes it’s hard to believe that a few short months ago the stock market was riding high and unemployment was a mere 3.5 percent. Now, three months into social distancing and lockdowns, Americans’ job prospects have taken a dramatic turn.
Recruiting software company Jobvite puts out an annual report on the behaviors, views and preferences of the modern workforce, and its 11th edition of that report comes amid a global health crisis that’s causing soaring unemployment rates and job insecurity.
Related: 10 Job Search Tips to Help You Find Your Best Opportunity Every Time
In this year’s report, Jobvite looked at data from two surveys — one done in February and a second in April during the nationwide shutdown. The differences between the two surveys were stark: In February, 28 percent of workers were afraid of losing their job sometime in 2020, and by April that number had climbed to 47 percent. By April, nearly half of survey respondents planned to find a second source of income this year.
Related: Ecommerce Entrepreneurship Grows as Unemployment Rises
Read on through this infographic for more information on how job-seekers are feeling about the American economy.
Some U.S. states are facing disproportionate financial challenges due to the pandemic. Plunging tax revenue, unemployment, and rising healthcare expenses, coupled with high levels of existing state debt have driven some states into acute financial distress – threatening the nation’s unity.
This is not the first time the U.S. has confronted a common, disparately borne struggle. In 1790, Alexander Hamilton spurred the federal government to take over the debt accumulated by states in the fight for independence. It was the “price of liberty.” The agreement caused controversy, particularly among the states asked to contribute more. In the event, unity prevailed, and the nation strengthened.
Today, a similar act of solidarity is needed. To be clear, we are not suggesting indebted states be bailed out, but they should not be made to pay for their pandemic-induced financial strain. Instead, the incrementalcosts states incur during recovery should be considered the “price of unity” and shared at a national level, as they were over 200 years ago.
Investors, however, seem pessimistic about U.S. unity. In fact, judging by financial market indicators, they have already chosen which states are likely to come out on top post-crisis (the likes of Texas and Florida), and which will pay most dearly (California, Connecticut, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York). This divisive verdict does not foster “a more perfect union,” which the US needs today to maintain its status as the world’s most powerful economy.
We know which U.S. states investors are most wary of; we can see the evidence in the current, volatile prices of state-specific default insurance that we examine in our research. The trajectory of these prices, as calculated based on data from IHS Markit, predicts that, over the next five years, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut have a 1-in-10 chance of defaulting on their debt, and Illinois a whopping 1-in-4. These numbers are in stark contrast to the 1-in-60 risk of default recorded for Florida and Texas over the same horizon.
This is surprising. While Illinois’ protracted financial woes and pension obligations are not new, investors’ negative perception of the other five states is. In January 2020, the cost of insuring against the default of California, New York, Florida, or Texas was roughly equal. Today, default insurance for California and New York costs around four times that for Florida or Texas.
There are three reasons for such a large disparity in default perceptions across states.
First, some states have higher COVID-19 infection rates, which certainly strain a state’s finances. But, infection rates do not tell the whole story; Florida has the largest share of at-risk population, and its per capita infection rates are roughly equal to California’s, while its default risk has hardly budged since January.
Second, all six states with the largest spikes in default risk have high debt levels and overextended budgets. In short, as we have seen with the EU, the markets believe that only the fiscally strongest states avoid default. Yet, unlike the members of the EU, each state is not a separate entity, but an integral part of the United States (whose default probability has remained low, despite unprecedented debt levels).
Last, these six states are predominantly Democratic. While Democratic-favored policies, such as subsidized healthcare, certainly left these states with less fallback finances, Republican implications that they be left to go bankrupt after suffering a shock beyond their control seems irresponsible.
The sting of negative market perception is felt as tax bases shrink, rainy day funds of even well-managed states run dry, and state governments are forced to turn to financial markets to borrow additional funds to meet their budget commitments.
States perceived more likely to default will pay higher interest rates on their debt, making their recovery more arduous. Raising additional debt is more difficult and expensive, as Illinois recently discovered when it committed to paying a punitive 5.85% interest on its $800 million of new debt. Had Illinois issued the same debt before the pandemic, they would have paid half as much.
Although some may experience schadenfreude in seeing a “poorly-run” state forced to tighten its belt, it seems unjust not to aid a struggling state amid a global economic and health crisis.
Unfortunately, withholding support seems to be exactly what some leaders favor. Senator Rick Scott (R, Fla.), in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, asserts that states should not be rewarded for their “poor choices”. This solution is particularly unfair to strapped cities on those states. Detroit, for example, despite having recently emerged from near-crippling municipal bankruptcy, is being bowled over again by the financial consequences of the pandemic; its recovery will almost certainly require state government aid. With no compromise in sight for easing the economic burden of the most indebted states, residents of cities like Detroit face steeper taxes, reduced efficacy of municipal services, and risk having to choose between pensions and medical coverage.
Although the $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill recently passed by the House ($1 trillion of which will be reserved for state and local governments) is a step in the right direction, President Trump’s veto threat suggests that the U.S. may not be quite ready to set aside their party politics. Unfortunately, such comments will only serve to deepen market concerns, making it more difficult for the overburdened states to finance themselves.
What the U.S. needs now are the same actions it took over two centuries ago: compromise and unity. Indeed, now is not the time for them to practice political distancing – at least not in the room where it happens.
Patrick Augustin is an associate professor of finance in the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University.
Valeri Sokolovski is an assistant professor of finance at HEC Montreal.
Marti G. Subrahmanyam is the Charles E. Merrill Professor of Finance, Economics, and International Business in the Stern School of Business at New York University.
Davide Tomio is an assistant professor of business administration in the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.
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In the annals of economic surprises, the news that the U.S. added 2.7 million jobs in May, marking an astounding reversal from COVID-19’s crushing blow to employment, was one for the ages. Few predicted that such a momental jump could be repeated, let alone surpassed in the next month, but the seemingly impossible just happened. At 8:30 a.m. on July 2, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that 4.8 million more Americans returned to work in June. That almost doubles the May dazzler, itself an all-time record, and beats any monthly number in history prior to the pandemic by a margin of 4 to 1.
Predictably, the stock market cheered, the S&P jumping 35 points, or 1.15%, by midmorning on Thursday to stand within 3% of where it started the year, as the Nasdaq notched another all-time high. The jobs jump is as heartening as it is stunning. But to stage a full comeback, to restore America’s consumer spending and confidence to the robust levels that prevailed before the crisis, the U.S. needs to get back to the pre-pandemic jobless rate of 5% or below.
Put simply, we’re now benefiting from the easy part, adding millions of positions in retail, restaurants, and hotels as the economy (albeit haltingly) reopens. Many of those jobs that vanished so quickly are returning far faster than predicted. Nevertheless, for many of the “temporarily unemployed” in hospitality, stores, and health care, getting back to work will be a long slog. And for folks who were just plain laid off, with no prospect of being rehired, the road will be even longer and tougher.
In fact, returning to 5% unemployment will probably take another five years, according to an analysis by Chris Rands, a fixed-income portfolio manager at Nikko Asset Management. Rands presents the most logical forecast this reporter has seen on how fast jobs will return. His outlook calls for a two-stage recovery consisting of the strong bounce back that’s unprecedented because it follows a collapse that’s also unprecedented, followed by grinding gains that reflect America’s much slower historical pattern for growing the employment. So let’s dig into Rands’ analysis, updated for the big gains posted in the June report.
It’s instructive to review how suddenly and deeply the jobs picture collapsed, and how much ground it has retraced. In March and April, U.S. employment dropped from roughly 158 million to 137 million, a loss of 20.6 million jobs that quadrupled the unemployment rate, from 3.5% to 14.3%. The gains in May pushed the shrinkage to 18.3 million. Still, that’s twice the damage reached at the depths of the Great Recession.
Rands points to the gap between both the rise in joblessness, and prospects for recovery, in the two categories of the unemployed: what the Department of Labor calls “on temporary layoff” and “not on temporary layoff.” The first group consists mainly of service workers in such sectors as restaurants, stores, and airlines where business suffered the most sweeping shutdowns. Those now on the sidelines believe they’ll be rehired quickly, and for good reason: It’s already happening in a big way. The second cohort, “not on temporary layoff,” is made up of folks who lost their jobs and have no idea when they’ll get back to work.
In January, the “temporary” count was just 742,000, much lower than the “non-temporaries” at 1.9 million. But in a reversal that stands out even in these times of surreal data, the “temporary” contingent by April jumped by over 17 million to 18.1 million, or 25-fold, and the “non-temporary” group rose by 500,000 to 2.6 million. In May, the big improvement came only for the “temporaries,” as their number declined to 15.3 million. The no-job-in-sight crowd lost more ground.
Rands’ study is based on the May numbers, but with his permission, I’ve updated his analysis for the hugely positive data for June. His model predicts that as the economy reopens, all of the jobs created in the next six months to a year will go to the “temporary” people who dominate the “reopening” sectors recovering right now. He figures that in that period, roughly three-quarters of that group will be working again. If so, 11.6 million of the 15.3 million in that camp who were jobless in May will find employment by mid-2021 at the latest.
It was the temporary group that made all of the gains in June, continuing the trend from May. The folks that see themselves as quickly returning regained 4.8 million jobs. By contrast, the “not on temporaries” saw their numbers swell to 3.71 million from 2.95 million in June.
Things are improving fast for the customer-facing employees whose bars and shops shut down fastest and are who are now serving drinks and burgers, giving haircuts, selling sports shoes, and managing boutiques. In May and June, “retail trade” added 1.1 million jobs, and leisure and hospitality a staggering 2.5 million, while health care—benefiting from a ramping up in elective procedures—restored 800,000 positions. Employees at airlines or commercial construction are seeing only trudging progress that portends a much slower return to work.
Let’s update Rands’ figures for the June report. Of the 11.6 million he’s expecting to win back their jobs in six months to a year, 4.8 million got there in June alone. “It is happening more quickly than I expected,” he told Fortune. Still, Rands believes that the June surprise doesn’t change the numbers in the temporary category who will remain unemployed, probably at least until mid-2021. His best estimate of the jobless in the “temp” ranks a year hence is still the one-quarter of May’s 15.3 million, or 3.8 million. Add to that group the 3.7 million “not on temporary” cohort with no current prospects for a job.
That brings the total likely to remain unemployed by mid-2021 to 7.5 million, for a rate of 7% to 8%. That’s still more than double the figure at the start of 2020.
Here’s the crucial question for America’s economic future: Once three out of four of those who expect to be rehired quickly return, how long will it take to whittle down the hard core that remains jobless? The key target is the 5% that generally represents full employment and signals healthy growth. Rands points out that in a recovery, the U.S. generally adds between 150,000 and 200,000 jobs a month. He believes that after the initial surge, the job creation will return to that historic pace.
The slow recovery from the Great Recession, he says, provides a useful guide. “It took seven years from when the Fed took rates to zero to achieve 5% unemployment in 2015,” he says. Rands predicts that in an optimistic scenario, it will take the U.S. three to five years, starting in mid-2021, to once again achieve that target. He believes that the Fed’s prediction that unemployment will return to 5% in 2022 is way too optimistic. More likely, the Fed will be forced to hold rates at zero to wrestle down the jobless rate for several years to come.
Of course, a lot could go wrong that would drag out that timetable. Already the opening of bars, restaurants, stores, and airline flights has started to be pushed back, or even reversed in some states. Meaning it’s time for everyone to get realistic about how long it will take us to get to anywhere near the great job numbers that seemed our destiny six months—and an economic age—ago.
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Jobless Americans are receiving an extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits from the federal government on top of their state benefits. But that extra $600 benefit set aside from the CARES Act expires at the end of July unless the federal government extends it.
Once that federal unemployment bonus is gone the 19.5 million Americans actively receiving unemployment insurance would see a $600 weekly—or $2,400 monthly—pay cut. Not only will that translate into many households not being able to make ends meet, but it could also derail the economic recovery.
“The economy going back into recession is likely if we cold turkey cut the extra unemployment insurance benefits,” says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. He thinks the data will show that on the current trajectory the recession ended in May, but a complete phase-out of the $600 extra weekly unemployment benefits in country where COVID-19 cases are rising again, would likely pull the economy back into contraction. “They’d stop paying their bills and stop spending and [it would] kick the whole economy down.”
The extra $600 weekly unemployment benefits boosted incomes by around $70 billion in the month of May alone, according to Fortune‘s analysis of U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis income data. That’s larger than the gross domestic product (GDP) of eight states.
And speaking of GDP: If the benefits are extended through the end of year it is likely that GDP and household spending would be greater in the second half of 2020, according to a June report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). And if extended through the middle of 2021, it would increase average quarterly GDP by 3.7%, according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.
However, if the extra $600 unemployment are fully extended it would likely lower employment, according to the same CBO report. How so? Around 5 in 6 unemployment benefit recipients would get weekly payouts in the second half of the year greater than what they’d expect to make working, the CBO finds. So the generous benefits could deter some workers from returning to jobs and slowdown the recovery.
At least that’s the thinking of Senate Republicans who are opposed to extending the $600 benefits and blocked a $3 trillion relief package passed by Democrats in the House, which included an extension of the benefits through January 2021.
“Those benefits put a floor on the collapsing economy. It’s the minimum of what necessary to protect or Band-Aid the economy … If removed it is essentially letting the dam break,” says Pavlina Tcherneva, an associate professor of economics at Bard College and author of the recently published book The Case for a Job Guarantee. She supports extending the benefits through the end of the year. At the very least Congress should only scale back the benefits, she says.
Allow them to disappear and we may see the hard-won economic gains we’ve made disappear, too.
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Consumers are the backbone of the American economy, making up two-thirds of the economy. Recovering from the coronavirus pandemic will rest on how quickly people open up their wallets.
On Friday the economy got good news: After consumer spending fell -6.6% in March and a record -12.6% drop in April, consumer spending soared 8.2% in May—a record jump, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. The surge in consumer spending comes as states across the country eased their shutdowns in May.
While that figure is still down 11.7% from February, the increase last month is another sign the economy has swung from recession to growth. In May, the unemployment rate fell to 13.3% from its peak in 14.7% in April. And the total number of Americans currently receiving unemployment benefits—continued claims—is at 19.5 million, down 5.4 million from its May peak.
And the rebound in the economy may be greater than it appears. Why? The economy was likely still contracting in early May, with unemployment rolls peaking at 24.9 million the week of May 9. That’s what makes the May economic data so impressive: The upward swing in the second half of the month was great enough to erase any drop earlier in the month and still show a substantial gain.
But there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the potential for a V-shaped recovery. For starters, another 1.5 million initial unemployment claims were filed in the week ending June 20—marking 14 straight weeks with jobless claims topping a million. Before this pandemic, the U.S. had never topped 700,000 weekly claims. Secondly, many Southern and Western states are seeing surging COVID-19 cases, which could threaten the recovery. Texas even rolled back its reopening plans.
On Friday the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis also announced that personal income dropped -4.2% in May. But that isn’t as bad as it appears: Personal income soared a record 10.8% in April as many Americans received their stimulus checks. So the May drop may simply reflect a more normalized pattern.
As the U.K. prepared to go into nationwide lockdown this spring, Raj Bhopal, 67, an emeritus professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, decided to come out of retirement and go back to work.
His 35-year-old son Sunil, a pediatric public health doctor, chair of the International Child Health Group, and an academic at the University of Newcastle and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, also saw his job shift—he was heading back into hospitals to prepare for a wave of patients infected with COVID-19.
The U.K.’s pandemic hasn’t gone like they expected. In the months since, father and son have become academic collaborators, publishing a piece on mortality rates for children as a result of the virus. They’ve also both become outspoken critics on the lack of detail in the U.K.’s lockdown and reopening strategy, arguing that it doesn’t acknowledge the impact on some of society’s most vulnerable members: children, migrants, and the homeless.
They’re now calling for a more “honest” conversation about the risks and tradeoffs of emerging from lockdown.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Fortune: What have the past several months been like for you?
Raj: I’ve been retired nearly two years. And when this happened, I thought, well, this is my field. I know a lot about epidemiology, public health, infections. So I couldn’t just keep my feet up. I usually just work one leisurely day a week, and I decided to put myself back to work.
So I’ve been pretty busy. And it’s been very stressful because it’s not just the work, it’s following the news, and the mismatch between what I would expect to be happening.
I’ve been in public health since 1983. This is my second pandemic. I was there right at the beginning of the AIDS pandemic. I remember the feelings then, and now to come back to it a second time around and watching what’s going on in the world and the sense of great unease as to how badly it’s being handled. It’s been, I think for myself, I would have to say it is very stressful. And yet I recognize that I’m one of the most privileged people around.
Raj, what was the moment when you decided, “I’ve got to start working again”?
Raj: About 10 days before the lockdown was announced in Scotland, I could see things were beginning to move. Because I’m a chess player, and our chess club locked down about 10 days before the Scottish government announced a lockdown. And the golf club also started to communicate with each other. And I realized the public was way ahead of our politicians.[The chess club] knew I’m a public health academic doctor. So they were asking me questions, and I was answering the questions according to the official guidance I was reading in my journals. And very shortly I realized that what I was reading was wrong, and that the public was ahead of me. And then I thought: I need to get on top of this. I can’t just rely upon what I’m hearing on the news. I can’t just rely upon the summaries in the journals like the BMJ. I have to understand this disease for myself. Probably around about the 15th of March, I realized that something terrible was about to happen.
Sunil: As the pandemic transitioned here in the U.K., I was asked to come out of my academic role and out of my community-facing role where I normally see children at home, and purely work in the accident and emergency department. It was a big change for me professionally. We were are all really scared because we didn’t know what was going to happen. We thought there was a pretty reasonable possibility that our children’s accident and emergency [units] were going to be full of sick kids. We were really, really worried about it. And we can talk about how that panned out, but essentially we’ve not seen that. We’ve not seen A&Es full of really, really sick children. We’ve seen actually children not being brought to hospital, which is its own concern. We’re still trying to unpick the reasons behind that, but it’s been quite a strange period for me as a children’s doctor.
Sunil, particularly for children, as we were going into the lockdown in the U.K., what were your concerns about the other health impacts this might have?
Sunil: It was quickly apparent to those of us in the children’s sector that it was going to exacerbate problems that already existed for children—particularly children at risk of abuse and neglect, on that end of the spectrum, but actually for all children. And we know that these periods, whether it’s early life or adolescence, whatever it is, that whole period of childhood is so crucial to children’s lifelong well-being. We really don’t have the luxury of messing it up. What was worrying to me and to others was that we weren’t hearing anything about it particularly from government. I watched those political briefings here in the U.K. every day, looking for some acknowledgement of what was happening to children. Putting children away, hiding them away at home, it’s different to keeping adults away. I don’t think that was acknowledged. And I really struggled to find a sense that the government were thinking deeply and clearly about this.
Raj, when did you start to see that this might have an outsize impact on minority communities in the U.K.?
Raj: I taught my undergraduate and postgraduate students for 35 years in public health. We always start with the most underprivileged people first. If we can solve the problem for them, we can solve it for the whole of society, but if we solve it for the privileged people, we don’t solve it for the whole society. And my first concern was about the beggars on the streets. I had noticed a lot of beggars in the streets during the lockdown, and I wrote to our public health agency to say that we need to do something about getting the beggars off the streets, because they’re in danger themselves and also to other people. So where are they going to go? In fact, I said to a beggar, “You shouldn’t be on the streets.” And he said to me, “You tell that to our government.”
And then I thought to myself: Who’s going to be the greatest risk is going to be the undocumented migrants because they have no recourse to public funds. People don’t know where they are. They tend to work in very difficult circumstances, usually in the restaurant trade, caring for people. No one will notice or think about them. So those are the first two groups.
Then of course, I knew that ethnic large groups do tend to have varying problems. We needed to study them. I wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen, but I knew that with this particular virus, and most viruses, most infections, they affect people who live in overcrowded households, overcrowded work settings, large families.
And I also was worrying about places of worship. I know for my own community—I’m a Sikh—I go to the Gurdwara. It’s busy. The men shake every single person’s hand. That’s the culture. And I also have been to mosques, and I know what it’s like to go to a church on a Sunday. So I was worrying about these sorts of places.
I wanted to get your thoughts on the recent protests.
Sunil: I think what we have to recognize is that there are all sorts of causes of inequality and hardship, and COVID is one of those. And it’s brought such huge amounts of difficulty to our country, to the globe. But it’s not the only one. And racism is another one, and it’s a really important one. And it’s really important that we continue to fight on all of these different fronts to keep things moving.
That’s part of what my argument is about children—that in the super important focus on COVID, we can’t just forget all the other things that are going on. It’s about considering things in the whole. And one of the things I learned from my dad growing up—as a child and through my career—is that you approach all problems taking a lens that is all encompassing, and that’s a real public health approach. And it’s really, really difficult to do.
Raj: [On the protests], I think the people have spoken. They have said to us very clearly, some things matter even more than health. Justice. Injustice. Racism. The way we organize our societies. These things matter more than our health. And indeed, health is not the most important thing. Even as a public health doctor, I have to admit health is not the most important thing.[For example], I’ve been talking to my family and saying that if I was given the choice between being unemployed or getting COVID-19, and I was under 50, I’ll have COVID-19 any day, rather than being made unemployed. If I’m over 50 I don’t want to get COVID-19—I take the risk of being unemployed.
What do you think of the U.K. government’s reopening strategy?
Sunil: Society has to decide: What does it value? That we get the economy moving is incredibly important. So they’re going to make decisions that might seem a little bit strange to people who really are desperate to see a particular person in their life, their uncle, aunt, grandparents, whatever, you know. You see this on social media all the time: Why is the Premier League football opening, but I still can’t see so-and-so?
I think that government should be really explicit about why it’s choosing these things and allow and encourage conversations about what’s important to people. Children get missed. Young people get missed because they don’t have a voice. They struggled to raise it themselves. They’re not thinking about these groups.
I think that the crucial thing is that a variety of voices are heard—those who are voiceless or powerless. Some of those groups we’ve talked about today. The homeless, people from minority ethnic groups, children, you can go on.
Raj: I think what we all have to remember is that health and wealth are very closely intertwined. If you’re wealthy, you’re definitely healthy. If you’re poor, your health is much worse. Health and unemployment are closely interrelated.
So getting that balance right is extremely difficult. I’m so glad I’m not a politician. Easier to be a public health doctor and a public health academic at these times because our job is to supply the information or maybe supply the analysis that will help people make the decisions. Making the decisions is very difficult.
In my view, we should have acted in January. Even February was too late. Acting in March was definitely too late. But that’s okay, that’s all history now. We have to think about the future, not the past, and the retrospectoscope, as I like to call it, it’s a wonderful instrument—but it was never invented. So it’s very easy to look back with hindsight and say, We should have done that. Maybe we can learn the lessons for the future.
We’ve got to think about what do we do now. And the answer is we can’t stay in lockdown much longer, but I would like a more honest debate about the pros and cons of various things. I’d like to see the evidence. And it’s very hard to get the evidence from government. [The government’s] not intending to publish its evidence.
And I think there should be a more public debate about what’s going on. Some people will prefer to take the risk; some people prefer to take no risks. We should be giving people more of an individual choice on how to act.
Of course, we have to work collectively as a society to minimize the risk in society, but we can’t be in lockdown for a year. We can’t be in lockdown for five years. Because the idea that this is all going to go away is not right. We’re not going to get a very effective treatment that’s going to solve the problem. We’re all hoping for a vaccine, but the experience of vaccines for infections of this kind is not good. We have to be hopeful. We have to be optimistic. But we also have to be realistic.