Infrastructure / News

Congress Fiddles While Deaths of Despair Mount

New Fatalities Loom as Global Epidemic Spreads

“And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” Edgar Allan Poe, Masque of the Red Death

By Angela Vullo

Feb. 2, 2020–Despite all the chatter of the “great economic expansion,” the population of the United States finds itself in the precarious situation of a continuing rise in deaths caused by despair.  And lurking in the shadows is the possible expansion of a thus-far-incurable new coronavirus.  Meanwhile, the Congress of the United States has done little or nothing to address both contagions.

Only a real, vibrant economic recovery driven by a robust investment in infrastructure and industry will be able to “cure what ails us.” As was seen last in the Kennedy Space Program era, unless we awaken both a mammoth increase in physical production, and the unleashing of the creative spark in a growing percentage of the population, we are likely doomed.

Congress Fiddles While Deaths of Despair Mount

Crude suicide rates in the United States

On January 29, 2020, the House Democrats held a news conference calling for a meager $760 billion infrastructure program, but then admitted they have no idea how to finance the endeavor.  They dropped the money part of the proposal into President Trump’s lap and walked away. However, the President has made it abundantly clear that he too has no idea how to pay for infrastructure.  So, we are left playing badminton with no birdie.

There is, of course, a proposal being widely circulated in both state houses and the Congress for a new $4 trillion Infrastructure Bank, to get the nation off the dime so we can conquer this multitude of nightmarish problems.

Suicides are Rising 

Although U.S. life expectancy has decreased for three consecutive years, on Jan. 30 the Centers for Disease Control released a report indicating that life expectancy has gone up slightly in 2018, rising from 78.6 to 78.7 years. However, despite the positive indicators, the Los Angeles Times reported that, “Deaths from heroin and prescription painkillers went down, but deaths from other drugs – fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamines – continued to rise.”

The use of deadly opioids is driving down U.S. life expectancy.

In addition, “The suicide death rate hit its highest level since 1941 – about 14 per 100,000. The rate peaked during the Depression in 1932, then mostly declined until 2000. It’s been rising most years since then.”

The LATimes also cited a separate report released Jan. 30 by the private Commonwealth Fund, which headlined the fact that the United States has the highest suicide rate among 11 wealthy nations studied. “That report also found U.S. life expectancy is two years lower that the average for the 10 other wealthy nations,” the paper reported.

Opioid deaths on the rise, again

On January 31, the Washington Post published additional horrifying statistics on opioid overdoses:

“Preliminary data indicates that 220 people died of opioid overdoses in the District in the first 10 months of 2019. If that fatality rate holds for the final two months of the year — which are still being analyzed — the District will log more than 260 fatal opioid overdoses, a 24 percent increase over 2018. That would also make 2019 the second-deadliest year for drug users since the District’s opioid crisis began five years ago.”

“Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data this week showing fatal drug overdoses declined in 2018 for the first time in 28 years. But the CDC has also released provisional data reflecting a slight national increase in deadly overdoses during the first six months of 2019.”

Congress Fiddles While Deaths of Despair Mount

A Janesville, NY auto plant, now closed and demolished.

The CDC report comes in the wake of a study released in December by the JAMA Internal Medicine journal, in which researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, Yale, Harvard, and Massachusetts General Hospital documented the dramatic conclusion that “Opioid deaths rise when auto plants close.” (See this blog’s article on this report). Although similar reports about the link between the decline in industrial jobs and deaths of despair have surfaced over the last couple of years, this is a good indication that sentiments and figures have not changed, but grown. The researchers concentrated on documenting the dramatic rise in opioid addiction and deaths which hit towns in the Midwest that were left in desperate straits after their auto factories shut down.

Not Just the Midwest

However, it’s not only in the Midwest that U.S. death rates are climbing. The Editorial Board of CentralMaine.com weighed in on January 20, 2020, to express their concern, “Our View: ‘Deaths of despair’ call for a coordinated response.” They wrote:

“Early deaths are on the rise particularly among those age 25-64. The increase is most prevalent in areas hardest hit by the Great Recession — one study found a third of early midlife deaths since 2010 occurred in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Indiana; Maine, too, has seen one of fastest increases, as has New Hampshire.

“The meteoric rise of overdose deaths fueled by the opioid epidemic is a major factor, but not the only one. Also on the rise are deaths by suicidealcohol and a range of diseases associated with obesity. Together, they are all sometimes referred to “deaths of despair.”

“It shows that the health of Americans is tied to their ability to find work that brings in a sufficient paycheck — and perhaps provides a sense of personal satisfaction — and that failing to respond to a region’s economic distress can be deadly for its residents.”

Congress Fiddles While Deaths of Despair Mount

Poverty in Maine, one of the states hardest hit by the opioid epidemic.

Who’s Committing Suicide?

In addition to a rise in opioid deaths, there is an increase in suicides among blue collar workers, as reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer on January 27, 2020. I quote:

Between 2000 and 2017, the suicide rate in the U.S. increased by 40%, with blue-collar workers in industries such as mining, oil and gas extraction, construction, agriculture, transportation, and warehousing most at risk, according to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study used data from 32 states — including Pennsylvania and New Jersey — that participated in the 2016 National Violent Death Reporting System, which combined data from death certificates, coroner and medical examiner reports, and law enforcement reports. Researchers looked at the suicide rates by profession for 20,975 people, ages 16 to 64. They found that both male and female workers in construction, mining, oil, and gas had the highest suicide rates.

These statistics should not obscure the fact that suicide rates are alarmingly high overall, most notably including veterans and farmers. Some argue that these groups have not been sufficiently counted in the CDC studies such as those cited above, as those studies have relied on only a portion of the states, and on those with jobs.

Coronavirus: Masque of the red death?

As rates of U.S deaths of despair rises, the Chinese are dying from an epidemic of a different nature, an involuntary one.

Chinese screening to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Early in December 2019, people in China began falling ill. On January 25, 2020 President XI warned of the “grave situation” due to the deadly virus.  Fear is escalating throughout the world as China’s coronavirus spreads and people die. On Jan. 31 the World Health Organization declared a global emergency.

China had already declared an emergency and established a taskforce to address the crisis. Immediately the country began building at least two specialized hospitals, which can treat over 2000 patients, with unprecedented speed. Some reports say as many as four new hospitals will be built.20

Architectural Digest reports that China is building a hospital in 10 days. It writes:

Over the past few decades, China has built some of the most revolutionary architecture in the world. But what they plan to do now—complete a 1,000-bed hospital in a mere 10 days—might be among their most ambitious feats to date.

In Wuhan (the epicenter of the virus), dozens of cranes are currently digging a 269,000-square-foot plot of land that will soon become a hospital. This isn’t the first time China has had to build medical infrastructure in the face of a viral threat. The design of the new hospital will be based on that of Xiaotangshan Hospital, which was erected within a week in Beijing during the SARS outbreak of 2003. As with Xiaotangshan, the Wuhan Huoshenshan (Fire God Mountain) Hospital is being built with prefabricated materials.

“Typically, prefabricated architecture is used to minimize building cost and waste. But neither of those reasons compares to the biggest benefit of prefabricated construction: speed. The goal is to have the hospital completed on Monday, February 3.

While cases of the coronavirus in the United States remain mercifully few, we find ourselves already stretched to deal with the “normal” spike in hospitalizations due to the ongoing flu season. What will happen if the coronavirus comes here in force?

Latest Congressional infrastructure plan – woefully inadequate

On Wednesday, January 29, Speaker Pelosi announced that the Democrats would propose a plan for a $760 billion plan over five years to build infrastructure, devoted to highways, rail, and transit.  Although the plan might be well-intended, it is too little, too late, and she provided no way to pay for it.

The Democrats’ press conference Jan. 29.

For the last three years, all the talk of infrastructure has been so bandied about without serious plans for implementation that even the mere mention of “infrastructure week” has become a Capitol Hill joke.

With all the phony economic figures being thrown around, whether they be low unemployment or the rise in the stock market, the truth is now beginning to surface.  Manufacturing is the lowest in 10 years, productivity is hovering around .5%, wages have been stagnant for decades, and in 2017 U.S. infrastructure was rated a D+, and it certainly hasn’t improved. We are in serious trouble.

Given the real state of the U.S. economy, is there any wonder why the average American might be in a state of despair? The once proud economy of the United States as the world leader for scientific progress has been dramatically and tragically reversed. A government that once defended the general welfare now operates at the behest of the Wall Street man-eaters.  Market investors signal extreme nervousness to the spread of the coronavirus, but only as it affects the markets.  The fact that people are dropping dead — in China, America, or anywhere — is not their concern.

State of emergency

Not since the 1918 Spanish flu, when U.S. life expectancy dropped by 12 years, and 675,000 deaths occurred, has American life been so threatened.  Despite the rise in suicides during the Great Depression, the emergency economic action taken by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 reversed the despair. His programs led to a rise in life expectancy from 57.1 years in 1929, to 63.3 years in 1933, and to 67.9 years in 1945, through improvements in sanitation, hospitals, electrification, jobs, and income, largely by building infrastructure. This kind of emergency action is needed now.

 FDR’s WPA brought work and hope to millions in the 1930s. Here, workers dig a water main in 1937. (commons-wikipedia)

In 1933, one of the darkest hours of our history, President Roosevelt declared a national emergency and moved immediately to put the country to work.  With the New Deal, the WPA alone built 650,000 miles of roads, 78,000 bridges, 125,000 civilian and military buildings, 800 airports, improved or enlarged, and 700 miles of airport runways. It served almost 900 million hot school lunches, operated 1500 nursery schools, and much more. These are the statistics that matter, not what we are hearing today.  All this was accomplished with the aid of funding by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has said that at least $4.6 trillion is required to get our infrastructure just to a state of good repair. The creation of a Hamiltonian National Infrastructure Bank could fuel the economy to the tune of $4 trillion and erase the despair that is weighing so heavy on our people. Alexander Hamilton conceived such bank as the foundation of our economy, precisely to prevent times like these. What are we waiting for?  How many of our citizens need to die before a national emergency be declared?

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