I had a mild bout of flu in February 2008. I’d had worse flus, and I have had worse since then. I was a 24-year-old with no health issues; I recovered quickly.
What made this infection notable was that, a month later, I experienced intense pain in my throat that radiated through my chest and face. I could barely see. I tried to drink water and could not swallow. For a minute or two, I couldn’t breathe. Laryngospasm–– it feels like drowning in air. Dizziness, nausea, and vomiting followed. The “mystery illness” caused a panic attack. Not just one, either; they kept coming for months.
The physical problem turned out to be a secondary bacterial infection. It’s rare, but sometimes happens after influenza.
Unfortunately, the panic attacks never went away. They often don’t. Severe respiratory illnesses often cause lifelong disability–– PTSD, reduced lung capacity, depression, anxiety and panic disorders. Once the body and brain “learn” how to panic, this vulnerability becomes a new facet of daily life. So terrible is the experience of a panic attack that a person will do nearly anything to end one. Without a doubt, they’re one of the worst things a person can experience. Moreover, the fear of panic attacks can, itself, produce one. Intrusive thoughts and superstitions become a part of daily life. Unchecked, this can lead to dysfunction and agoraphobia.
I hit bottom in 2009. I was agoraphobic. I had to spend a year re-learning how to do daily activities, re-learning that it was safe to ride a bike, sit on a crowded subway, ride a car. I built myself back from 1 HP. It wasn’t easy.
At this point, I’m 98-percent recovered from panic disorder. I used to have attacks on a daily basis. Now, I might have a “go-homer”–– one bad enough that I have to leave work–– once in a year or so. I’m probably in the 85th percentile for health at my age (36). Aside from being minus gallbladder, I’m in excellent physical health. I can deadlift 340 pounds. At this point, I can do all the activities of daily life. I’ve had panic attacks while driving. I don’t recommend that experience, but it’s not unsafe. If I have one while scuba diving, I have a plan for that (signal diving buddy, ascend slowly).
Open-plan offices are a struggle for me. Actual danger doesn’t trigger panic attacks. I’m fine riding a bike in traffic. I’ve swum with sharks (no cage) at 78 feet–– which is not as dangerous as it sounds. Open-plan offices, though, are needless cruelty. The easiest way to have a panic attack is to sit for nine hours in a place where having one (a minor irritation when it happens at home) will be a professional death sentence–– and, trust me on this, it is. If the bosses find out you have (scary music) “mental illness”, you will either be fired or given the worst projects–– gimp-tracking–– until you leave.
So-called “mental illness”, after a serious respiratory infection, is normal. The body is not meant to go breathless. Nearly half of SARS survivors, ten years after recovery, were still too disabled to return to work. These were healthcare workers (in high demand) outside of the United States. For American wage workers, the rate’s going to be worse.
I’ll give myself as an example. On May 10, 2019, I successfully interviewed for a job at MITRE as a simulation and modeling engineer. On May 13, they made an offer, which I accepted. My intended start date was Monday, June 3. Robert Wittman, who was to be my manager, somehow learned of my diagnosis (likely, illegally) and, on the (false) belief that it would prevent me from getting a security clearance, rescinded the offer. This happened to me 11 years after the original infection.
So, even if you survive severe COVID and are well enough to work, you might not find anyone willing to hire you.
Here’s my prediction, and I hope I’m wrong, but I’m probably not. If anything, these numbers are conservative.
First, I think that nearly everyone in the US will be exposed to COVID–19. The Republican Party’s forty-year campaign to destroy our government has been successful, and employers are more interested in the appearance of doing the right thing than in actually doing the right thing. The American workforce is 160 million people. I predict 100 million will be infected.
Half of that 100 million, I predict, will be asymptomatic. They’ll get the disease but show little pathology. Of the other half, I predict 35 million mild cases, 13 million severe cases, and 2 million critical cases, leading to 125,000 deaths. These numbers are far more favorable than the pattern the disease has shown, and that’s because I’m talking about the American workforce, not the entire population. Total deaths in the US could reach seven figures; working-age deaths, probably, will not.
“Mild” is a relative term, and when we’re talking about diseases like SARS or COVID, “mild” isn’t all that mild. It means the case probably doesn’t require hospitalization. Some who have mild cases will develop secondary infections. Many will lose their jobs and health insurance, producing psychiatric sequelae. These people won’t be in immediate danger of losing their lives, but many will be disabled, and some for years. I’m going to say that 5 percent of people (1.75 million) in this set will be long-term disabled–– they will lose their jobs due to illness and be unable to find work.
Of the 13 million severe cases, I’m going to use SARS as a point of reference and predict a 40-percent disability rate–– 5.2 million. This leaves 2 million at the worst level of illness–– critical, meaning organ failure or intubation are involved, and I’m going to predict that 65 percent of them (1.3 million) are unable to go to work. This gives us a total of 8.25 million.
If my (conservative) predictions are right, we in the 18–65 sector are going to see “only” five years’ worth of traffic deaths from COVID–19. A big number, and worth taking seriously, but not apocalyptic. Life will, after a few miserable months, return to normal.
Millions of workers–– I predicted 8 million, but it could be half that or double that–– will be, in the wake of non-fatal COVID, unable to return to their jobs, or to get other ones. They’ll try to work–– in this country, they have no other choice–– but they will be unable to meet the performance demands of their jobs, and summarily fired. They will have six-month job gaps in 2020 and no one will want to hire them. Their careers will be disrupted and unfixable. CEOs will insist that they are not discriminating against people who survived COVID, with all the credibility I have in insisting that I have a 16-inch IQ and 200 penises. Legislators might pass laws preventing discrimination against COVID–19 sufferers, or against people with job gaps during 2020, but we all know that employers don’t need to follow laws when they can call themselves “jawb creators” and get a free pass.
Our society runs on “if ya doesn’t work, ya doesn’t eat” model, and millions of people are likely to become unemployably disabled. Some will be unable to work at all. Some will, like me, return mostly to health, and be able to work, but struggle to get hired due to lingering stigma. COVID–19 will pass. Our bosses and owners will tell us that everything’s back to normal (it won’t be) and that we just need to get back to work. But millions of people are going to be unable to do so, and the system will discard them forever.
I should mention a personal bias: I’m a democratic socialist. Often, I read people on the right claiming that “communism killed millions“. It isn’t true. Death attribution is a complex science and you can’t just count every death that’s not by old age as being caused by the economic system in place. If you compare the death tolls of so-called communist regimes (some of which were terrible) to what they would likely have been under similarly repressive regimes (of which there are numerous examples) aligned with imperialist capitalism, the excess death rate of communism is… zero or negative. That’s not to say that communism is flawless or faultless–– only that it does not produce excess deaths over what would have otherwise occurred.
At issue is that we’ve been brainwashed, in the United States, to believe that all people who died of causes excluding old age in communist countries were “killed by communism”, every single one. Meanwhile, when capitalism kills people, it blames those who were killed. “Personal responsibility.” If that Pakistani kid’d had the good sense not to go outside on a sunny day, he wouldn’t have been freedom’d by a drone.
Communism’s public liability is that it never forgets–– and, given the severe failings of societies that called themselves communist, it should not forget. Communism has too much memory and too much history and too much responsibility. Capitalism has no memory and no history and no responsibility.
If we go “back to normal”, as our owners and managers will insist, and neoliberal corporate capitalism remains in force, eight million people are going to find themselves falling to the bottom. Months or years from now, they’ll die needless deaths. We know what the capitalists will already say. Trump already said it: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
Not only in the next three months, but in the years following this catastrophe–– as people try to return to their careers and find their jobs gone–– corporate capitalism is going to fail. But is it going to fall? That’s up to us. If we do our jobs, yes. We cannot let our economic system and those who
own employ us, when they try to avoid taking responsibility for their role in this calamity, succeed.