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President Trump: Make Workplaces Safe Again by Making Masks.

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President Trump: Make Workplaces Safe Again by Making Masks.

To save the American economy, we must fill the mask shortage.

President Trump is fighting a war on two fronts right now: the virus itself, and making sure there’s a country and economy left to save once the virus is defeated.

You won’t have much of a workforce if large numbers of them are out sick—or worse, getting other people sick.

And while I question whether it’s wise or even ethical to prioritize something as nebulous as “the economy” when there are bodies piling up in the morgue—Americans whose funeral proceedings have to be telecast for fear of viral contamination—I also recognize that people need to eat, rent day is just around the corner, and bills will need to be paid. Short of completely freezing the economy for several months, and subsidizing all facets of American life through government aid, it’s just unfeasible to keep the workforce out of work much longer.

But in order to get people back up on their feet, the President must prioritize keeping workers safe. Workers are, after all, the lifeblood of the economy. You won’t have much of a workforce if large numbers of them are out sick—or worse, getting other people sick. Not a single person must be left behind. In fact, those with jobs right now who are still working—in healthcare, public sanitation, transportation, and supply—are desperate for ways to protect themselves as they’re forced to put themselves in harm’s way to keep the country going.

There’s no way around it: to save both the economy and his country, President Trump will have to make workplaces safe.

Telework.

Telework.

THE TELEWORK DISPARITY: ONLY THE RICH GET TO WORK FROM HOME

The fact of the matter is that right now, most American workplaces do not have the infrastructure to ensure their employees’ safety. That’s why those that could afford to send their workers home, did.

Everything that federal and local governments are struggling to do right now—surveillance and tracking contact, monitoring for early warning signs or making sound estimations of the number of asymptomatic cases, enforcing physical distancing in public spaces—all of these measures would have to be enacted at the scale of American businesses in order to mitigate the risk coronavirus poses to their human capital.

The fact of the matter is that right now, most American workplaces do not have the infrastructure to ensure their employees’ safety.

That’s probably why there is such a stark class divide between how quickly workplaces have been able to deal with the outbreak. White-collar institutions like universities and technology companies were able to encourage workers to work from home well before the White House announced its “15 Days to Slow the Spread” initiative. Microsoft encouraged telecommuting as early as March 3rd. Facebook, Apple and Twitter took similar measures early on—in large part because they could afford to. “Working from home is a luxury that only some, mainly white-collar Americans, can afford … Many can communicate in real-time on internal message systems like Slack and videoconferencing like Zoom. But not all employers, especially small businesses, can afford the kind of equipment that enables people to work from home seamlessly,” writes MarketWatch. This doesn’t even take into account the urban/rural digital divide that makes working from home in places like Appalachia untenable.

In New York, where Governor Cuomo declared a State of Emergency after 76 people tested positive for COVID-19, construction workers continue to work, side by side, building luxury towers. As they work, they are forced to share “portable toilets that rarely have soap or hand sanitizer,” reports the New York Times. “In Brooklyn, workers at an apartment building who have had to reuse the same masks every day were ordered back on the job even after a fellow worker had contracted the virus.”

And while Amazon executives and elite tech workers are able to Zoom into the office, its warehouse workers and drivers are left to fend for themselves, working through “crowded workplaces, nonexistent screenings for symptoms, a lack of cleaning supplies, and a pace of work that made proper sanitation difficult.”

What’s ironic in all of this is that a significant portion of Donald Trump’s base is begging him to open the economy—even though many of them are still working. They’re still showing up to their blue-collar posts and taking care of their fellow Americans, despite how doing so is putting themselves, their families, and the country’s hospital infrastructure at risk.

Maybe it’s because these workers are less visible than the always-on Twitterati, but I was surprised to learn that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost 100 million Americans must be physically present to work. In fact, less than 30% of Americans have jobs that allow working from home—and, surprise, surprise, the poorest among the American workforce are not among them. “A majority of Americans—at least those who still have jobs during the pandemic—must weigh whether to go to work and risk being infected by the virus, or forego pay. For those living paycheck to paycheck or without access to paid sick leave, it’s an almost impossible decision,” writes Vice.

U.S. Navy sailor performs a respirator fit test.

U.S. Navy sailor performs a respirator fit test.

MAKE AMERICAN WORKPLACES SAFE AGAIN 

There are two urgent needs that Americans and President Trump have to meet: getting the economy back up and running while keeping people as safe from infection as possible. To accomplish both, every worker must be protected from infection, or else we’re just delaying the inevitable economic crash that follows when millions are out sick.

East Asian countries like Taiwan and South Korea offer a path forward. Both of these countries have seen relatively few cases of the coronavirus in comparison to their counterparts in Europe—despite their proximity to the epicenter of the outbreak.

This is a near-impossible task when most workspaces cannot accommodate social distancing (a must if you want to beat the rapid spread, according to experts), and the equipment necessary to keep the same is in short supply.

East Asian countries like Taiwan and South Korea offer a path forward. Both of these countries have seen relatively few cases of the coronavirus in comparison to their counterparts in Europe—despite their proximity to the epicenter of the outbreak.

Despite living in close-quarters familial environments (much like Italy and Spain), South Korea managed to confine the disease to a few small outbreaks, which they acted quickly to isolate before they overwhelmed hospitals. Taiwan started inspecting flights inbound from Wuhan on December 31st, 2019—well ahead of every other nation in the world. At the time, there were only two dozen or so cases in Wuhan, but it was enough for the Taiwan Center for Disease Control to sound the alarm.

In addition to acting early, South Korea and Taiwan have something else in common: their use of masks. It’s culturally acceptable for members of the public to use masks when they travel and are out in public spaces—even when nobody is getting sick.

"Hong Kong health officials credit universal mask wearing for easing their outbreak and recommend universal mask use."

Hong Kong health officials credit universal mask wearing for easing their outbreak and recommend universal mask use.

When the pandemic hit, and people were getting sick, this practice intensified.

On January 20th, the Taiwanese government activated the Central Epidemic Command Center to mobilize funds and the military for mask production. As part of these measures, the country banned the export of masks to ensure they had enough for their own citizens. They did so on January 24th, just three days after the first case of the coronavirus was reported in Taiwan. The Taiwanese government, enacting its own version of the Defense Production Act, dispatched its military to textile factories to set up mask production lines to accommodate the demand. They also instituted a mask rationing system a few weeks later, permitting adults to buy two masks per visit every couple of days, and four for children.

By early March, Taiwan was producing upwards of 9.2 million masks a day, and the rationing has increased to three masks per adult and five per child.

Masks are not a complete panacea, but they offer some means of protection from airborne pathogens. Moreover, they prevent those with illnesses—especially unaware asymptomatic carriers—from spreading disease. Remember one of the first things the CDC advised to avoid catching or spreading the novel coronavirus? Don’t touch your face.

Of course, the media has since argued that those who aren’t sick shouldn’t wear masks, but this isn’t because masks don’t have a prophylactic effect; it’s because America is facing an alarming mask shortage. According to Zeynep Tufekci, “many health experts, including the surgeon general of the United States, told the public simultaneously that masks weren’t necessary for protecting the general public and that health care workers needed the dwindling supply.”

Health officials have resorted to begging the public not to go out and strip the shelves of masks because nurses and doctors—our frontline in the war against coronavirus—are having to reuse masks for days on end because of the shortage.

Hospitals in the U.S. are pleading with the public for mask donations. Things have gotten so desperate that everyday Americans have started crowdsourcing initiatives to get frontline healthcare workers the protection they need. “[S]cores of citizen-led donation groups are popping up across the country, including GetusPPE.org, DonatePPE.org, Mask Match and one to move gear from labs to hospitals called PPE Link. Then there’s also a group of volunteers called Mask Crusaders who’ve set up ad hoc chapters in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle and elsewhere. The hashtag #GetMePPE continues to trend across social media,” writes NPR.

If the CDC announces that it’s safe for people to go back to work and lift extreme social distancing recommendations, many would be hesitant to go back to work. Many employers would—especially the ones who could afford it—would simply keep their doors shut. Even the most powerful nation in the world cannot just will the coronavirus away.

Yes, America is caught between a rock and a hard place—save lives or save the economy. But there is no saving the economy without making workplaces safe, and there is no making workplaces safe without attending to the mask shortage.

“[A]bout 100 million masks in the stockpile were deployed in 2009 in the fight against the H1N1 flu pandemic, and the government never bothered to replace them. This month, Alex Azar, secretary of health and human services, testified that there are only about 40 million masks in the stockpile—around 1 percent of the projected national need,” the New York Times reports.

America demanded a wartime president, and that’s what they got. Now it’s time for that President to do everything in his power to provide masks for the American worker.

There is no way out but through.

Written By

Ian Miles Cheong is the managing editor of Human Events.

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