An assertion I have made recently has drawn controversy. I have said that, in the wake of COVID–19, we’ll likely see 8 million American workers become unemployably disabled for a long period of time–– years; possibly, for life. This is an extreme prediction, and I hope I’m wrong. I’ve made predictions that were wrong and embarrassing. I sincerely hope this is the most embarrassing prediction I’ll ever make. Given the extremity of it, let me explain the assumptions on which it rests.
Please, check my work. If I’m making an incorrect assumption, post a comment, and I will fix it.
I am not, in any capacity, an expert on virology, medicine, or epidemiology. These are complex, difficult sciences and we must defer to the experts. The numbers I will be using will be within the ranges of existing predictions regarding how bad this pandemic can get, and how much damage it can do.
Of course, we have to define terms. What does it mean for a person to be unemployably disabled? There is a spectrum of sickness, and one of disability. The vast majority of this 8 million people (plus or minus a factor of two) will not be bedridden, miserable, or sickly for the rests of their lives. Unemployably disabled means that someone is sick enough that (a) no one wants to hire her (whether because of her disability itself or her suboptimal career history) and (b) she struggles to retain jobs due to her inability to hide the chronic health problem. She need not be physically crippled, psychiatrically hospitalized, or too sick to contend with daily life. She might not “look” disabled at all, but she will have too few spoons to have even a chance of victory in corporate combat.
In the United States, where employers are above the law on account of having convinced the public to call them “job creators”, it does not take much disability at all to make someone unemployably disabled.
Like I said, I’m going to document all of my assumptions, so the public can check my work.
My first assumption is that COVID–19 will not be contained. This is the biggest one, and I hope I’m wrong. If the virus is contained, like SARS, then perhaps only a small number of people will be exposed to the virus. If only 500,000 people get it, then clearly there is no way for COVID–19 to render 8 million people unemployably disabled.
However, the virus is extremely contagious, with an r0 estimated at 2.28. Not as bad as measles, worse than flu–– probably worse (in contagion) than the monster flu of 1918. Does this mean that it can’t be contained? No. SARS had a similar r0 and was contained. However, neoliberal corporate capitalism, for reasons that will be discussed, is especially bad at containing outbreaks.
Old-style state authoritarianism has its failings, but people know what the rules are. A government quarantine can be enforced. An authoritarian government can just shoot at people who move until the r0 drops below 1. It’s a terrible solution, but it works.
Social democracy can also work, so long as a sufficient number of people have the good will to exercise their option to hunker down (that is, practice social distancing) and let the experts handle the crisis. I have chronic health issues but I am taking special measures right now (e.g., dietary changes, avoidance of damaging circumstances) to minimize risk of needing medical attention in the next six months. In part, my reasons for doing so are selfish; in part, I am trying to minimize my risk of being a burden to a soon-to-be-overtaxed hospital system. We are all on the same team.
What cannot contain an epidemic like COVID–19 is an economic system such as ours. Under neoliberal corporate capitalism, we have a libertarian government (providing immense economic freedom to those privileged enough not to have to work) but live in a matrix of authoritarian employers, who control our incomes and our reputations, and who can bend the government to their will by calling themselves “job creators”. In a world like this, no one knows who is in charge. Who does the American worker obey? Does he obey the man in Washington advising self-quarantine, or does he obey the boss who believes “coronavirus is just a cold” and has the power to turn off his income (and, by giving negative references, non-consensually insert himself into the worker’s reputation) if he shows up 15 minutes late? Chances are, he’s going to ignore the G-Man and obey his boss. The quarantine will not be effective. Even if it is enforced by the government, so many people are in such precarious economic straits that they will illegally circumvent it, if it comes to that.
We would have to scrap corporate capitalism entirely to have anything better than a 5 percent chance of containing COVID–19. Let’s be honest, a total overhaul of our economic system in the next two months is very unlikely. Chances are that, instead, the novel coronavirus will stick around in the American population (and, therefore, the world population) for good.
How bad is this? Not necessarily terrible. Over time, we’ll probably develop natural immunities to this thing, rendering it just another coronavirus. In the mean time, though, COVID is going to make a lot of people sick.
My second assumption is that about 100 million American workers will get COVID–19. Angela Merkel predicted that two-thirds of Germans will contract the virus., which is in line with epidemiologists’ expectations. That doesn’t mean they’ll all get sick. Most won’t. Case-fatality rates–– the WHO has given this disease a CFR of 3.4%–– often overestimate the lethality of the virus, because so many mild and asymptomatic cases go undetected. We may never know the real lethality rate of this disease, but in working-age Americans it will likely be under 1 percent. That’s the good news. This is a serious illness, but it’s not showing a likelihood of being a massacre like, say, the 1918 flu.
What about flattening the curve?
Health ministers and epidemiologists have been advising us to practice social distancing–– that is, avoid large gatherings–– to slow the virus’s exponential growth and “flatten the curve”. We absolutely must do that. A widespread emergency that overloads the hospital system will cause the lethality to spike, as it has in Italy.
By flattening the curve, we can achieve a great deal in preventing deaths, but we’re not necessarily going to reduce the number of cases. Flattening the curve is important because, when resources run thin, the matter of when people get sick has a major influence on survival. It doesn’t guarantee that they’ll never get sick.
How sick? Some people will carry the virus and suffer no symptoms. Some people (and not only elderly people) will get severely ill.
My third assumption is that, among that 100 million workers, the breakdown of cases (into asymptomatic, mild, severe, and critical cases) will be similar to what we’ve seen so far.
Unfortunately, there’s some guesswork regarding the currently infected population. We haven’t tested everyone; we don’t know how many cases of COVID–19 there are. Using percentages I believe to be in range of what experts expect, and scaling down a bit because we are speaking of the working-age population (a younger and healthier set) I’m going to predict: 50 million asymptomatic cases, 35 million mild infections, 13 million severe cases, and 2 million that are critical. These numbers could well be off by a factor of two, but not in a way that would meaningfully alter my fundamental conclusion–– that millions of people are about to develop long-term disabilities that, in American corporate capitalism, will render them unemployable.
It’s important to understand what is meant by a “mild” infection, when the medical community says that most (70–90%) COVID infections are mild. The word “mild” is relative. A “severe” cold (38 °C fever, inflammation and pain, unable to work) is “mild” by the standards of flu. Similarly, “mild” SARS or COVID is comparable to “severe” influenza (unless we’re talking about the 1918 monster flu, which is in its own category). Specifically, in the context of COVID, “mild” means that a patient is expected to survive without hospitalization–– there is no evidence of immediate danger.
In a “mild” case, life-threatening secondary infections may occur later on. That’s a serious issue, but not one that must be treated now. Some of these “mild” cases will come with pneumonia. Some will come with 39–40 °C (unpleasant but not critical) fever. Some will produce post-viral chronic fatigue comparable to that following mononucleosis or the bacterial infection responsible for Lyme disease. Quite a few people with “mild” cases will experience transient (but not life-threatening) respiratory distress serious enough to induce panic disorder or PTSD. These cases won’t require hospitalization–– and hospitalization will likely be unavailable–– but they will still be, for most young people, the worst health problems of their lives so far.
If that barrel of fun is “mild” COVID, what’s severe? Severe cases require hospitalization for days, and possibly weeks. Artificial respiration may be involved. Critical cases include those where vital organs are involved–– kidney failure has been reported. Yeah, this thing’s nasty.
Any health problem can traumatize a person, but respiratory ailments have quite a track record. The body is not meant to go without oxygen, and even slight deprivations freak the brain out. We’ve seen this with SARS and the 1918 flu. We’re likely to see it with COVID–19. Even in the cases being called “mild”, because there is no threat to life that requires emergency hospitalization, truly “full recovery” is not a guarantee. People are going to get panic attacks from this, and once a person has had a few of those, a lifelong struggle with panic disorder (and agoraphobia, and depression due to adversity in employment) becomes likely.
My fourth assumption is that COVID–19 will have a long-term disability profile, controlling for severity, comparable to SARS.
Nearly half of SARS survivors, ten years later, were unable to return to work.
Does this mean that 40–50 percent of COVID–19 survivors will be unemployably disabled? It’s hard to say. SARS is not COVID–19. Let’s size up some of the differences.
For one, SARS disproportionately affected skilled healthcare workers, for whom there’s high demand in any economic situation. We would see a higher rate of unemployable disability if this hit people whose services aren’t really needed–– say, private-sector software engineers or project managers. Of course, it will hit everyone and
Second. SARS did not have many victims in the United States–– where, although it is illegal to discriminate against disabled workers, the laws are scantly enforced. It mostly afflicted countries where workers have better protections against their employers. If, say, 40 percent of survivors were unemployably disabled in Canada, we’d likely see 75 percent unemployably disabled in the United States, not because the disease was more severe but simply because employers in the US get away with more.
That being said, all the evidence so far suggests that COVID–19 is not as severe as SARS. Therefore, I don’t think we’re going to see the same rate of unemployable disability (40 – 50 percent) among COVID–19 survivors, if only because there are so many more mild cases.
Here are my predictions. Five percent (1.75 million) of those with mild infections will be unemployably disabled–– that is, at some point, subjected to a career disruption through no fault of their own from which they will be unable to recover. Among the severe cases, I’m predicting 40 percent (5.2 million); among those with critical cases, 65 percent (1.3 million). These numbers might each be off by a factor of 2, but they’re not unreasonable. They are middling estimates.
There’s already a mountain of evidence supporting high proportions of those suffering severe and critical illness becoming, through no fault of their own, unemployable. What about the mild cases? Isn’t it a bit dire to predict that 5 percent of people with “only” mild infections will become unemployably disabled? No, it’s not. If anything, the real number’s likely to be higher.
Most of these cases will not be attributed COVID–19. Plenty of the people won’t know they ever had it. They’ll simply experience “a bad month” in which they will be unable to meet the performance requirements of their jobs, suffer managerial adversity and workplace bullying, and suffer career setbacks from which they’ll never recover.
Kimberly Han is a (hypothetical) 33-year-old software engineer at a half-trillion-dollar technology company, LetterSalad (formerly, Vigintyllion). On April 3, she develops a mild case of COVID–19. She’s able to work from home, because the US is on lockdown. Her fever never breaks 39 °C and she never feels the need to go to the hospital. She’s never diagnosed with COVID. She never thinks she even had it. Since she works from home, she’s not even aware of racist COVID-related jokes made about her by the managerial in-crowd. The storm passes. Everything’s fine.
In September, Ms. Han finds herself tired. Post-viral syndrome. Other than being tired, she’s fine, but she develops a cough. She misses a “sprint” deadline. She needs to take naps in the afternoon, and misses an unannounced but important meeting. Management perceives her as a “slacker” or as “sickly” or as “low-energy”. The product manager and her “people manager” tell her to stop “SARSing up the schedule”, which is totally not racist because the direct manager is a white, Ivy-educated “Boston Brahmin” and the product manager is an actual Brahmin, and it’s physically impossible for racists of two different races to work together to be racist to someone.
The workplace bullying culminates in her developing post-traumatic stress disorder. She begins to have daily panic attacks. She powers through the episodes, not missing a day of work to the attacks, but her manager doesn’t like “the optics” and begins paperwork to terminate her “for performance”. Kimberly Han, through no fault of her own, loses her job. Within time, the post-viral fatigue lets up but post-traumatic stress disorder does not. COVID–19 left her body and she is unaware that she’s had it, but she’s unemployably disabled.
What’s above will happen to people. Even if we do everything right, even if we flatten the curve and prevent our hospitals from becoming dangerously overloaded, it will happen to American workers, not necessarily in that precise way, but nonetheless surely. Some will have reduced lung capacity. Some will develop anxiety and depression. Some will develop panic attacks or PTSD. So will never be diagnosed but exhibit unexplained personal changes and not even know, when they are fired and unable to ever work again, that it was because of illness that they lost their careers (and that they were, therefore, fired illegally).
Could I be wrong on that 8 million figure? Of course. More accurately, it is: 8 million, plus or minus a factor of 2, conditional on an assumption of non-containment. I hope I’m wrong. I hope the virus is contained, or that it proves seasonal and dies out in the spring, but there’s no evidence that we can count on either one.
It is very likely that millions of American workers are about to become unemployably disabled. Crippled? No. Not even necessarily unhealthy. Careers are fragile things; it doesn’t take much disturbance to make someone unable to get and keep jobs in a competitive labor market that has been rigged against workers for the past forty years.
“Couldn’t this be a good thing?”
I understand the argument. This pandemic may create a short-term labor shortage, and there are people who believe the clearing-out could lead to an improvement of opportunities for workers. I’m not so bullshit.
I don’t know enough about virology, medicine, or epidemiology to do anything more than piece together existing research, but I do know enough about economics, politics, and organizational dynamics to say this: while the people who own our society are evil, they are not stupid. The upper class and the corporate executives will profit, and we will suffer.
There are some people (sick, broken people) who believe that this “Boomer Remover”: virus will create opportunities in the workplace or that it will “clear away” people who are a burden on society. Neither’s true. First, while this will kill a lot of sick old people, it will at the same time make a lot of currently healthy people (young and old) very sick–– in some cases, for a long time. The disability burden on society is not going to be ameliorated by COVID–19; it will be increased.
So, let’s talk about why a potential labor shortage isn’t actually to the worker’s benefit. We are not in the time of the Black Plague. In the 14th century, the nobles needed the peasants. American workers can easily be replaced by machines and by literal slaves in other countries, and they will be. I remember, in 2005, being told that Millennials would face a world of opportunity by now, as Boomers retired and vacated the workforce. It didn’t happen. Those cushy $500,000-per-year BoomerJobs? Those were never filled. They simply ceased to exist. We live in a society where recessions are permanent (for the workers) and recoveries are jobless. When things go bad, workers are first to suffer; when things are good, the owners take the bounty for themselves. COVID–19 will be no different. The rich will see a drop in their stock valuations; the poor will be eviscerated. This dynamic will not change until we destroy corporate capitalism.
What happens to the eight million people who become unemployable because of post-viral disability? There’s no safety net in this country, so these people will have record-low leverage, and so while they won’t find decent jobs (because no one will hire them for one) the owners of our society will find ways to extract work from them. A number fall into precarious “gig economy” piece-work, grinding out enough of an income to survive, as their health gradually unravels (even as COVID–19 becomes a distant, unpleasant memory). The least fortunate will turn to various unsavory ventures, because illicit labor doesn’t require a spotless résumé. Perhaps the most talented of the newly-disabled will do what I’ve had to do: swing from one six-month rent-a-job to another, until the boss figures out they have a disability and either fires or gimp-tracks them. That these people will be unemployable doesn’t mean that society won’t be able to get work out of them–– it means that they’ll be unable to get anything out of society.
One might think, though, that the eventual exclusion of 8 million people from traditional, “respectable” labor (office jobs) could bring a benefit to other 152 million who do not develop lifelong disabilities. Less competition, right? That’s exactly what our pig-fucker bastard owners want us to think. They want us to think of our fellow citizens–– fellow proletarians–– as “competition”. They want us divided against each other, because it keeps them in charge.
Revisit the title of this essay. I predicted that millions of people (8 million, plus or minus) will become unemployably* disabled, accent on the *.
In a corporate dystopia, where workers compete against each other for the benefit of their owners, it is inevitable that people with otherwise mild disabilities will become unemployable. That is, they will be unable to convince the obscenely well-paid “professionals” who profit by the buying and selling of others’ labor to give them gainful, stable employment. There is no reason it has to be this way.
Should a person who suffers post-viral fatigue be subjected to workplace bullying and performance evaluation? I would say no. Should a person, recovering from a severe respiratory illness, be non-consensually ejected from her career because her panic disorder or depression caused a headache for her boss? No.
Here’s the reveal, which should not be much of one.
Yes, COVID–19 is going to fuck a lot of people up. It’s killing people and will continue to do so. It’s horrible. I wish this were not happening; I wish what is about to happen were not about to happen. This said, it need not be the case that COVID–19 renders 8 million people, or even one person, unemployable. COVID–19 exists in nature; it is part of the real physical world and we have to contend with it. “Employability” does not exist in nature. It is a part of a social construct and a stupid one at that.
Corporate capitalism is a fragile, hostile economic system that will throw millions of people under the bus in the next year for no reason but their “offense” of getting sick. It will not know whether they got sick from COVID–19 or a secondary infection or post-viral fatigue or the psychiatric sequelae of respiratory illnesses. It will not care. It will fire them “for performance” and the wheels of the bus will roll along.
We’ll soon see about 8 million people rendered permanently unable to, on the harsh terms of corporate capitalism, get an income. For what? Is the needless suffering (and, likely, the continuing worsening of their health) of 8 million people, who did nothing wrong, a worthy price for the upkeep of a decaying socioeconomic system that all intelligent people–– even though we disagree on solutions–– despise? I think not.
COVID–19 is horrible. The earthly existences of thousands are, as I write this, in present danger. That number is likely to worsen. We need not let it be more perilous than nature has made it.
If we keep corporate capitalism around, we will see 8 million people–– some talented, some extraordinarily competent; but nonetheless unable to survive in a system where each worker must compete against a hypothetical replacement who might be as skilled but without illness–– fall out of the primary economy for good. There’s no point in that. It doesn’t have to happen that way. We can tear corporate capitalism down. We can overthrow our corporate masters (through nonviolent means if possible, through other means if our adversaries make it so). We can eradicate an economic system in which we compete against each other for the benefit of a tiny, self-serving minority who wish to own us. COVID–19 is proving to us that we, citizens of the world, are all on one team. We all want this thing not to destroy us and everyone we care about. It’s time to build an economic system reflective of that.
Wash your hands for 20 seconds. Avoid public gatherings. Try not to touch your face. Furthermore, I consider that corporate capitalism delenda est.