Economic Fallout Mounts, Along With Competition for Masks

coronavirus economy
A health-care worker discards personal protective equipment outside the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center Brooklyn, Thursday. (Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid)

The coronavirus outbreak has thrown 10 million Americans out of work in just two weeks, in the swiftest, most stunning collapse the U.S. job market has ever witnessed, and economists warn unemployment could reach levels not seen since the Depression, as the economic damage from the crisis piles up around the world.

The bleak news Thursday — 6.6 million new unemployment claims on top of 3.3 million last week — came as the competition for masks and other protective gear seemed to intensify and deaths mounted with alarming speed in Italy, Spain and New York, the most lethal hot spot in the nation, with nearly 2,400 dead.

There were sobering preparations in the U.S.: The Federal Emergency Management Agency has asked the Pentagon for 100,000 body bags because of the possibility funeral homes will be overwhelmed, the military said.

The mounting economic fallout almost certainly signals the onset of a global recession, with job losses that are likely to dwarf those of the Great Recession more than a decade ago.

With large portions of America under lockdown to try to contain the scourge, job losses for the world’s biggest economy could double to 20 million, and unemployment could spike to as high as 15% by the end of the month, many economists have said. Unemployment in the U.S. hasn’t been that high since the tail end of the Depression, just before the U.S. entered World War II.

“This kind of upending of the labor market in such a short time is unheard of,” said Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank.

Roughly 90% of the U.S. population is now under stay-at-home orders, and many factories, restaurants, stores and other businesses are closed or have seen sales shrivel.

Laid-off workers can tap money made available in the $2.2 trillion rescue measure passed by Congress. It adds $600 a week to unemployment benefits, extends eligibility to 39 weeks and for the first time, wraps in part-timers and workers in the so-called gig economy, such as Uber drivers.

Kathryn Lickteig, a cook in Kansas City, signed up for unemployment compensation last week after the city shut down dine-in restaurants. She is hoping the extra $600 will help her ride out the shutdown instead of having to look for another job.

“It has eased my mind so much,” she said. “I do not have to actively go out and expose myself to the public and possibly get sick. I can stay home now and do my part in social distancing.”

Many recently unemployed workers have reported frustrations with jammed phone lines and overloaded websites as they try to apply for unemployment benefits.

Annie Kiley, 24, said it took her an hour to apply after she was thrown out of work as a manager of production and shipping at Montauk Brewing Co. in Montauk, New York.

”I can’t think too much of the future because it’s dismal,” she said.

Altogether, close to one million people around the world have contracted the virus and more than 48,000 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University. Over 200,000 have recovered.

Spain reported a record number of daily virus-related deaths, 950 in 24 hours, bringing its total deaths to about 10,000, despite signs that the infection rate is slowing. Italy had the most virus deaths in the world, at over 13,000.

Over 200,000 people have been infected in the U.S., and the death toll climbed past 5,100.

The competition for ventilators, masks and other vital supplies was cutthroat.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned that at the current rate, the state will run out of ventilators in six days.

The governor has complained that states are competing against each other for protective gear and breathing machines, or are being outbid by the federal government, in a competition he likened to being on eBay. On Thursday he said the state will pay a premium to manufacturers — and cover the cost of converting their factories — to produce gowns and other badly needed protective gear.

A top health official in France’s hard-hit eastern region said American officials swooped in at a Chinese airport to spirit away a planeload of masks that France had ordered.

“On the tarmac, the Americans arrive, take out cash and pay three or four times more for our orders, so we really have to fight,” Dr. Jean Rottner, an emergency room doctor in Mulhouse, told RTL radio.

Nine leading European university hospitals warned Thursday they will run out of essential medicines for COVID-19 patients in intensive care in less than two weeks. The European University Hospital Alliance said countries should cooperate, not compete, to ensure a steady supply.

President Donald Trump acknowledged on Wednesday that the federal stockpile is nearly depleted of the protective equipment needed by doctors and nurses.

“We’re going to have a couple of weeks, starting pretty much now, but especially a few days from now, that are going to be horrific,” he said.

In Japan, where masks are a household staple, the government planned to mail two gauze masks each to the country’s 50 million households.

In New York State, more than 85,000 medical volunteers have stepped forward, according to Gov. Cuomo, about a quarter of them out of state. He thanked them profusely.

“I will be the first one in my car to go wherever this nation needs help as soon as we get past this. I will never forget how people across this country came to the aid of New Yorkers when they needed it,” he said.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with health problems, it can cause severe symptoms like pneumonia.

Elsewhere around the world, in Greece, authorities placed an entire refugee camp of 2,400 people under quarantine after discovering that one-third of the 63 contacts of just one infected woman tested positive — and none had showed symptoms.

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