COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on workers. The economy has plunged so quickly that official statistics can’t keep up, but the available data suggest that tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, with more job losses to come and full recovery probably years away.
But Republicans adamantly oppose extending enhanced unemployment benefits — such an extension, says Sen. Lindsey Graham, will take place “over our dead bodies.” (Actually, over other people’s dead bodies.)
They apparently want to return to a situation in which most unemployed workers get no benefits at all, and even those collecting unemployment insurance get only a small fraction of their previous income.
Because most working-age Americans receive health insurance through their employers, job losses will cause a huge rise in the number of uninsured. The only mitigating factor is the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, which will allow many, although by no means all, of the newly uninsured to find alternative coverage.
But the Trump administration is still trying to have the Affordable Care Act ruled unconstitutional; “We want to terminate health care under Obamacare,” declared Donald Trump, even though the administration has never offered a serious alternative.
Bear in mind that ending Obamacare would end protection for Americans with preexisting conditions — and that insurers would probably refuse to cover anyone who had COVID-19.
Finally, the devastation caused by the coronavirus has left many in the world’s wealthiest major nation unable to put sufficient food on the table. Families with children under 12 are especially hard hit: According to one recent survey, 41% of these families are already unable to afford enough to eat. Food banks are overwhelmed, with lines sometimes a mile long.
But Republicans are still trying to make food stamps harder to get and fiercely oppose proposals to temporarily make food aid more generous.
By now everyone who follows the news has a sense of how badly the Trump administration and its allies botched and continue to botch the medical side of the COVID-19 pandemic. Weeks of denial and the failure to implement remotely adequate testing allowed the virus to spread almost unchecked.
Attempts to restart the economy even though the pandemic is far from controlled will lead to many more deaths and will probably backfire even in purely economic terms as states are forced to lock down again.
But we’re only now starting to get a sense of the Republican Party’s cruelty toward the economic victims of the coronavirus. In the face of what amounts to a vast natural disaster, you might have expected conservatives to break, at least temporarily, with their traditional opposition to helping fellow citizens in need. But no; they’re as determined as ever to punish the poor and unlucky.
What’s remarkable about this determination is that the usual arguments against helping the needy, which were weak even in normal times, have become completely unsustainable in the face of the pandemic. Yet those arguments, zombielike, just keep shambling on.
For example, you still hear complaints that spending on food stamps and unemployment benefits increases the deficit. Now, Republicans never really cared about budget deficits; they demonstrated their hypocrisy by cheerfully passing a huge tax cut in 2017 and saying nothing as deficits surged. But it’s just absurd to complain about the cost of food stamps even as we offer corporations hundreds of billions in loans and loan guarantees.
But what’s even worse, if you ask me, is hearing Republicans complain that food stamps and unemployment benefits reduce the incentive to seek work. There was never serious evidence for this claim, but right now — at a time when workers can’t work, because doing their normal jobs would kill lots of people — I find it hard to understand how anyone can make this argument without gagging.
So what explains the GOP’s extraordinary indifference to the plight of Americans impoverished by this national disaster?
One answer may be that much of America’s right has effectively decided that we should simply go back to business as usual and accept the resulting death toll. Those who want to take that route may view anything that reduces hardship, and therefore makes social distancing more tolerable, as an obstacle to their plans.
Also, conservatives may worry that if we help those in distress, even temporarily, many Americans might decide that a stronger social safety net is a good thing in general. If your political strategy depends on convincing people that government is always the problem, never the solution, you don’t want voters to see the government actually doing good, even in times of dire need.
Whatever the reasons, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Americans suffering from the economic consequences of COVID-19 will get far less help than they should. Having already condemned tens of thousands to unnecessary death, Trump and his allies are in the process of condemning tens of millions to unnecessary hardship.
Paul Krugman, Ph.D., winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.