The coming week could be defining for America. Slow to enter the crisis, it is now recording figures that dwarf any other nation.
The latest death toll stands at over 9,000 – more than mainland China – and the number of confirmed cases is in excess of 311,000, almost a quarter of the global total.
Any graph you study plots a steep line still climbing – not only is it too soon to see the effects of social distancing in the hardest hit cities, like New York, some states haven’t even bothered imposing such restrictions. It could prove to be a grave mistake.
Coronavirus: Number of infections in real time
Even Donald Trump, who throughout this crisis has so often batted away the worst-case scenarios, seems to grasp what’s coming: “There will be a lot of death unfortunately,” he said solemnly over the weekend.
It’s not just him – his team is now preparing the country for the worst.
On a Sunday political show the US Surgeon General predicted the coming week would be “our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment,” and the ever-calm and impressive Dr Tony Fauci told Americans to “just buckle down” because the coming weeks would be “shocking”.
Less than a fortnight ago, the President had confidently boasted that he would reopen the US economy by Easter. Instead this holiday weekend could turn out to be the apex of this very crisis, certainly for New York.
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Trump is growing impatient and no wonder.
The unemployment figures last week were mind-blowing: 6.6 million new claimants, taking the total over 10 million. Five years of record employment wiped out in one short fortnight.
Trump says the economy will “sky-rocket” once this is all over, but few economists agree with him. Rather, this is going to get dramatically worse before it gets better, and in every sense.
The White House, often the purveyor of questionable optimism throughout this crisis, concedes it will do well to keep the number of deaths below 100,000. Even if it succeeds that will nonetheless be a truly devastating loss of life for this country, on a scale far greater than even the Vietnam War.
The economic effects will outlast the virus itself. Modelling carried out by The Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis puts eventual job losses at 47 million, 32.1% of the labour market.
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If you think those figures are dramatic and fanciful, just consider that no economist foresaw last week’s unemployment figures being as high as they were – the reality was worse than even the worst-case prediction.
America is sailing in uncharted waters, skippered by a man whose hopes for a second term rely on a strong economy.
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One glimmer of hope is that the downturn, albeit sharp, could also be quite short. Growth could return by the fourth quarter of this year, just at the moment Trump is hoping for re-election, but by then the societal damage and political consequences of coronavirus could be incalculable.
It is too soon to start searching for the light at the end of that tunnel because the next fortnight could be very dark indeed.