As job losses continue to pile up due to the actions belatedly taken to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, public conversation about the pandemic has shifted. During the initial stages of the response to the virus, news coverage was largely focused on the health threat. Private conversations and statements by public officials seemed to have the same preoccupation. Now, a larger share of our combined attention is being given to the medium and long-term ramifications of not only COVID-19, but to the social, cultural, and economic ones as well.
Some changes that have taken place are benign, perhaps even beneficial. Many people have made the jump to online shopping that otherwise may not have done so. Partly as cause, partly as effect, many businesses that were previously reluctant, or resistant, to participating in that aspect of the economy have decided to do so. Undoubtedly, some of those customers and businesses will revert to their previous habits once things return to something close to normal. Still, some will realize the convenience and benefits of their new habits and retain them. But in the new “close to normal” that will emerge, there will also be some changes that will be less immediately obvious but have more effect on everyday life over time. They will be larger, structural changes. Many of them will be to the detriment of most Americans.
In a future column, there is likely to be a more detailed analysis of the recent sudden realization by many of the economic importance of workers. For some people who were formerly so skeptical of the value of labor, their epiphany that it has value has led to some decisions and actions that would have been completely unexpected 90 days ago, and are a tacit admission that the person on the assembly line contributes at least as much to the success of a business as a CEO.
Unfortunately, this epiphany will almost certainly be as ephemeral as it was unanticipated. Some of the optimists regarding our ability to economically recover from this current crisis have been making the argument that the high levels of unemployment are temporary. Thankfully, that will be true for some people and for certain employers. That is not likely to be the case for a large number of people. Life may never return to “normal” for them. In some cases, that may be unavoidable due to forces beyond our control or for reasons we cannot reasonably foresee. But as with some of the more benign changes to our purchasing habits, some of the changes are more easily predicted. They will also often have more severe consequences.
Any assistance given to “job creators” – or whatever public relations moniker one wants to use – must come with, or continue to have, protections against artificial acceleration or expansion of already harmful economic phenomenon. It is time for policy makers to be particularly mindful of what an unfortunate number of companies and corporations were recently reminded of: that employees have value and workers matter.
We must not allow the necessary application of economic tourniquets that are designed to prevent suffering in the next few weeks and months to, ironically, make it commonplace in the next few years and decades. Stock buybacks were the initial, and justified, fear. But the permanent destruction of small businesses due to ineffective relief, coupled with things like corporate consolidation and, perhaps most ominously, the widespread proliferation of automation, is what will lead to collective economic problems and individual financial hardships that will endure long after the development of a coronavirus vaccine.
Jason Nichols is District 2 Democratic Party chair, an instructor of political science at Northeastern State University.