K-ing our way to a recovery

My Thanksgiving was spent with family. Only in this case, family means my wife and me, plus two cats who got a few scraps of turkey with their supper.

It was a scaled down meal absent some of the extra fatty dishes my wife makes during the holidays, like her cheese souffle. Also missing was our daughter, who likely wouldn’t have shown up anyhow because she lives four hundred miles away, but had planned to visit us a few earlier. But she needed a fresh covid-19 test and couldn’t get one in a short enough timeframe to satisfy the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. So, her Thanksgiving was similarly downscaled but, in her case, it was a rotisserie chicken that her cat helped consume.

The same thing will play out for us at Christmas. In fact, it’s been this way since we returned from a cruise last March, one of the last cruises to go out before covid-19 shut cruising down. We’re socially isolating, along with our many retired neighbors. There is no community holiday party this year. Our condo association’s annual meeting will be on Zoom. Socializing is now saying a few words to neighbors behind our masks at the mail kiosk.

But the end is now in sight, with at least two very promising and very effective vaccines likely to be available soon. As seniors, we’ll likely be nearer to the head of the queue than most. But really, we should be one of the last. There’s a good reason we haven’t contracted covid-19: we hardly ever go anywhere; retirement give us the privilege/luxury to do so. It helps not to be particularly extroverted. For us, coping is not that hard. It’s a bit like serving a sentence of home confinement. A trip to the store once or twice a week is the closest we come to mixing with society. Here in Massachusetts, virtually everyone wears masks outdoors and in stores. It would be truly extraordinary if we somehow contracted covid-19.

We’ll survive this thing pretty easily and comfortably. As for our country, not so much. We’ll likely surpass 300,000 covid-19 related deaths by the end of the year. By the time this is contained, the total is likely to be between 400,000 and 500,000 deaths, and may be higher. This would make it actually worse than the Spanish Flu of 1918 and 1919.

It’s easier to ignore perhaps because it’s affecting minorities disproportionately, and anyone who has to go out in the real world regularly, which are generally blue-collar types. This was true of my niece Cheryl, who teaches Chinese. She likely acquired it from a student and brought it home to her immune-compromised husband. She wore a mask but it wasn’t enough. Both of them survived it and neither required hospitalization, although there was some rough going. The rest of my siblings remain unaffected, or at least never exhibited symptoms. Most have jobs that allow telecommuting. They do sensible stuff just like us: go out infrequently and always wear masks.

It does get comical at time. I have a sister who retired to Titusville, Florida. Every time she goes out, she’s virtually the only one wearing a mask. Floridians by and large believe in freedom, which in this case means their right to infect others, a right recently upheld by the Supreme Court, at least as it pertains to religious services, as I noted in my last post. In the past, the Supreme Court decided that freedom of speech meant you couldn’t yell fire in a crowded theater. Our latest version of the Supreme Court though thinks its equivalent is fine in houses of worship. Go figure.

Anyhow, my sister observes her fellow neighbors doing stupid stuff. The family across the street brought in extended family and friends for a raucous Thanksgiving meal. It’s likely that part of this extended family will catch the disease from this socializing, but she reports Floridians for the most part just don’t care. They are enjoying their freedom to be mindlessly stupid. My sister and brother-in-law will survive where some of this family may not.

Trump and the Republican Party are giving us hundreds of thousands of Darwin Award winners. A decade from now we’ll look back on this pandemic and wonder how we could be so stupid. For many there wasn’t much choice: it was either that or starvation. After providing initial relief to keep people home, Congress subsequently decided the pandemic wasn’t that big a deal, and wouldn’t pony up more money to reduce our death rate by keeping people solvent while waiting safely at home.

It’s not too hard to predict that the rollout of a vaccine will go badly too. Guidance from the CDC on who should get the vaccine first is likely to be followed in a scattershot manner by the states. Probably twenty percent of us will refuse to get inoculated, letting it linger. But there are also staggering logistical issues in producing and distributing the vaccine. It will likely require two shots and super cold temperatures for storage, plus the candidate vaccines seem to have a shelf life of about a week. For some, they will refuse it because the shot hurts a lot. I’ve had the shingles shot and it’s a lot like that. It did hurt for a few days, but I got better. In any event, a true recovery is likely to arrive later rather than sooner, despite the quick production of an effective vaccine. It’s likely to be another six months before we get a sense that we have gained some control over the disease. The longer we dawdle in doing a good job, the worse our economy will fare compared with other countries.

Perhaps Republicans don’t care because it fattens their bottom line. This is turning out to be a K-shaped recovery, meaning that if you own stocks or can work from home, you’ll probably emerge a winner. Otherwise your personal economy is likely to sink you further toward or into poverty. In that sense only, Republicans have done a good job: they’ve improved the bottom line for those with wealth.

In February before the pandemic became a tangible thing, I moved a lot of our portfolio into bonds convinced that it would be a U-shaped recovery. It is, but not according to the markets. I did keep our net worth up for a while compared with the collapsing financial markets, but I didn’t expect the Federal Reserve’s success at propping up businesses would work so well. With fewer expenses due to the pandemic and markets soaring in spite of our anemic economy, our wealth is soaring.

I can’t find much to spend all this new wealth on, but I do feel guilty for having it. In reality though government responds to those with wealth, and that’s why we’re doing so well. It’s all those other suckers who keep the economy going who fall by the wayside.

Those and stupid people like my sister’s neighbors. Those of us with some wealth, who can easily socially isolate and wear masks will emerge from this triumphant. But our society will be markedly less stable than it was before the pandemic.

So hold onto your hats. The real reaction to the pandemic might show up in 2022.