Column: Will we still commute after the epidemic? – John Kemp



FILE PHOTO: A general view of a busy westbound platform during an evening of signal failures at Earls Court tube station in London, Britain, January 2, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Coombs

January 5, 2021

By John Kemp

LONDON (Reuters) – In the advanced economies, the coronavirus epidemic is likely to accelerate long-term structural changes in the location of work and accommodation and the transport systems that link them.

But the rate of change will be tempered by enormous inertia in real estate and transit systems to accommodate a widespread shift in work from central cities to the suburbs and secondary cities.

The current distribution of land use is the product of the railways in the 19th century and the automobile in the 20th century, which allowed people to travel much greater distances from home to the workplace.

While many executives and professionals can afford to live in central areas of large cities if they want to take advantage of networking opportunities and cultural facilities, most workers are forced to live in suburbs and satellite communities where housing is cheaper.

The result is a twice daily commute from home to work and back that is expensive in terms of money, time and energy – especially in megacities and other primary cities – and also exacts a significant penalty in terms of physical and mental health.

Over the last three decades, however, improvements in communications technology – including email, instant messaging and cheap video-conferencing – have made remote working more feasible, even for service sector firms which rely on contact between colleagues and between suppliers and customers.

WORKING FROM HOME

In Britain, the proportion of the workforce working remotely had been increasingly steadily, albeit from a low base (“Coronavirus and home working in the U.K. labour market”, Office for National Statistics (ONS), March 2020).

Even before the coronavirus epidemic, 5% of Britain’s workforce was working mainly from home, according to the ONS survey, with 12% of respondents saying they had worked from home at least one day during the week prior to the survey, which was conducted in 2019.

Full-time and part-time home working was most common in the traditional commuter regions of London and the South East, as well as among older and more senior workers, and those in the highest-paid occupations.

The implication is that working from home, at least part of the time, to reduce commuting or avoid it altogether was desirable, and many more employees would have liked the option if it was available.

More widespread use was held back by stigma, with remote working seen as a privilege reserved for high-status individuals and experienced workers nearing the end of their careers.

Enforced working from home for many office employees during the epidemic, however, has proved it is technically feasible and has lowered the barriers to its social acceptability, which is likely to speed up more widespread adoption.

COMMUTING PENALTY

London’s workers spent an average of 1 hour 32 minutes travelling to and from work every day in 2019, compared with an average of just under 1 hour in the rest of the country.

As a result, London’s workers spent an extra 140 hours per year travelling to and from work compared with their counterparts in other regions (“Transport Statistics Great Britain”, U.K. Department for Transport, 2020).

The longest commutes of all were into central London, with round trips averaging 1 hour and 48 minutes per day, with those travelling by rail taking journeys averaging a lengthy 2 hours and 18 minutes.

Like other megacities, London relies on public transport to shuttle millions of workers between the centre and periphery as well as satellite towns (“Coronavirus and travel to work”, Office for National Statistics, 2020).

Before the epidemic, two-thirds of Inner London’s workers used public transport (rail, underground and buses) to get to work compared with just 15% in secondary cities and less than 10% in the rest of the country.

Public transport is far more energy-efficient than private cars, which helps explain why London’s per capita energy consumption for transport is less than half of that in other regions of Britain.

Nonetheless, commuting still imposes a heavy penalty in terms of fares, energy consumption and time absorbed, as well as impacting adversely on physical and mental health.

Even before the epidemic, researchers had identified that crowded public transport accelerated transmission for respiratory diseases such as influenza.

LAND USE AND TRANSPORT

Transport improvements over the 19th and 20th centuries transformed the size and shape of cities. Now improvements in communications technology are likely to remake them again.

Increased remote working implies a reduction in the need for central offices and their ancillary services, with a partially offsetting increase in demand for working space in the suburbs, secondary cities and rural areas.

Much of this increased work space will be located inside dwellings, translating into pressure for bigger homes with more rooms, often further from megacity centres.

The principal constraint on the more widespread use of remote working is likely to come from the relative inflexibility of the real estate and transport systems.

There are roughly 24.4 million dwellings in England, with an average of just 180,000 new dwellings created each year over the last 10 years, an increase of just 0.7% per year.

In the short and medium term, therefore, the increased demand for working from home outside central cities will have to be met from an existing housing stock that is essentially fixed.

The inflexibility of the housing stock explains why the epidemic has depressed central city home values and rents while sending prices and rents in other areas surging.

Commercial real estate faces a similar problem. There is an emerging oversupply of work space and services space in central cities, with not enough in other areas.

Conversions to non-commercial use in central areas and the construction of more space in other areas will take years.

WORST OF BOTH WORLDS?

In response to the epidemic and pressure for more remote working, commercial real estate owners and employers have promoted the concept of “hybrid” working.

Business surveys show employers envisaging workers spending 60% of their time in the office, while employee surveys generally show a preference for working in the office 40% or even just 20% of the time.

Hybrid working is often portrayed as a compromise that offers the best of both worlds. But it could easily provide the worst of both.

Employees would still need to live close enough to the central workplace to commute two or three days each week, foregoing the advantage of relocating further away in search of cheaper accommodation and more space.

Employees would also have to find more space to work from home, pushing up their housing costs, while continuing to pay commuter fares at least some days each week, which would probably work out more expensive.

In a hybrid model, employers would see their need for office space decrease by 40-80%, but only if they can implement a “flexible working” model (i.e. hot-desking), which will be controversial after the epidemic.

Commercial real estate owners would still see demand for space decline significantly, with the oversupply of space likely to persist for years, depressing rents.

Finally, transit system operators would see a big decline in the number of daily commuter journeys, reducing their economies of scale, and probably pushing up fares per journey.

The epidemic and enforced working from home have shown the potential for a revolutionary shift in the location of work and accommodation, but the enormous inertia of the real estate and transport systems may delay much of the shift.

Related columns:

– Will coronavirus trigger a megacity exodus? (Reuters, Oct. 1)

– Disease X and rethinking the future of cities (Reuters, Aug 27)

– Megacities after coronavirus (Reuters, Aug. 25)

– Must the metropolis mutate for the virus? (Reuters, Aug. 13)

– Coronavirus is dark side of an urban interconnected world (Reuters, May 22)

(Editing by Susan Fenton)



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The other epidemic – The Justice Department accuses Walmart of fuelling the opioid crisis | United States


“THE OPIOID epidemic is as bad as ever,” says Caleb Alexander at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In a year when all eyes were on the death toll from covid-19, about 80,000 Americans died from drug overdoses from June 2019 to May 2020, more than during any other 12-month period ever recorded, according to preliminary figures from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Both federal and state governments have been suing companies for their part in this. On December 22nd the Department of Justice (DOJ) added a high-profile suit against Walmart.

The DOJ accuses the world’s biggest retailer, which also manages some 5,000 in-store pharmacies, of fuelling the opioid epidemic by screening questionable prescriptions lackadaisically, despite repeated warnings from its own pharmacists. The suit was expected. Some counties have already sued other pharmacies. In October Walmart sued the DOJ pre-emptively, asking a federal court to clarify the responsibilities of pharmacists under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), an unusual step that seemed to be primarily a public-relations exercise.

In its complaint, filed at a court in Delaware, the DOJ alleges that Walmart violated the CSA in various ways, as the operator both of pharmacies and of wholesale drug-distribution centres. Under pressure from their managers, Walmart pharmacists dispensed umpteen dodgy drug prescriptions, according to the suit. Managers denied pharmacists the authority to refuse prescriptions from suspect doctors, and told them to dispense prescriptions quickly because “shorter wait times keep patients in store”. Walmart pharmacists continued to dispense prescriptions from suspected “pill mills”, even when warned that other pharmacies were refusing them. And they ignored red flags, such as prescriptions for “trinities”—drug cocktails that often include an opioid and a muscle relaxant.

The complaint also alleges that, as operator of distribution centres (Walmart ceased distributing controlled substances from such centres in 2018), the company received hundreds of thousands of suspicious orders, which it failed to report to the DEA. Distributors are required to report orders unusual in size, pattern or frequency. Over an approximately four-year period, Walmart shipped an estimated 37.5m controlled-substance orders to its pharmacies, but reported only 204 suspicious orders to the DEA. During the same period, McKesson, Walmart’s back-up distributor, which shipped far fewer orders, reported more than 13,000 suspicious orders from Walmart pharmacies to the DEA.

Walmart rejects the charges. The company says the suit is “wrong on the law and riddled with factual inaccuracies, mischaracterisations and cherry-picked documents taken out of context”. Walmart points out that pharmacists are not doctors, so they should not second-guess prescriptions. Moreover, not dispensing a prescription also carries risks: they could harm a patient in need. State boards could investigate them or even take away their licence. And patients and doctors could sue.

The 160-page civil complaint from the DOJ reads like the so-called multidistrict litigation (MDL), says Andrew Pollis of the Case Western Reserve School of Law. More than 2,000 suits filed across the country by counties, cities and Native American tribes are co-ordinated by Dan Polster, a federal judge. The DOJ suit could be combined with the MDL, says Mr Pollis. Walmart has 60 days from the day the complaint was filed to respond. It could file a motion to dismiss the case, but the district court in Delaware is likely to reject such a motion.

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Looking the other way”

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Australian managing partner of McKinsey regrets consultancy’s role during opioid epidemic


A damaging exposé has revealed how international consulting firm McKinsey & Company tried to pump up sales of an addictive painkiller during the opioid epidemic.

After the news broke in The New York Times, the firm was in damage control and it sought to explain itself to its Australian workforce.

On a Monday earlier this month, Australian employees of McKinsey received an email titled “NY Times Article” from the firm’s head, Angus Dawson.

“I’m going to schedule a session on Thursday at 6pm on Friday for anyone who wants to join a zoom,” the email read.

On the Zoom call, McKinsey’s Australian managing partner, Mr Dawson, urged Australian workers to put the scandal in perspective.

He asked staff to try to put themselves in the shoes of the consultants who made the recommendations.

He said he wished they had not accepted the job and “wouldn’t in the future”.

Purdue Pharma is the owner of OxyContin, a brand name for the painkiller oxycodone.(AP: Douglas Healey)

McKinsey’s client was Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of painkiller OxyContin, which is a brand name of opioid painkiller oxycodone.

In Australia, an affiliate of the company sold a similar drug — Targin.

What irked some McKinsey workers on the Zoom call, was that in the same breath Mr Dawson also defended Purdue’s actions and said the New York Times article was not entirely accurate.

He told the meeting McKinsey was not trying to increase opioid prescriptions — it was trying to increase “market share”.

For some in the meeting, this was just splitting hairs.

The most significant revelation in the New York Times piece related to the “innovative contracting arrangements” McKinsey had suggested to Purdue in 2017.

On one Powerpoint slide, McKinsey proposed Purdue offer rebates of about $US14,000 ($18,509) for cases of opioid addiction or overdose involving its medication.

There were also documents showing a senior McKinsey executive discussing eliminating documents.

Broader societal impact of consulting work

McKinsey’s clients are among the biggest companies in Australia, with McKinsey’s senior partners reportedly paid as much as $16,000 a day.

One six-week contract, to restructure the Department of Human Services, cost $858,000 — a deal seen as a discount.

Business meeting
In the global consultancy business, McKinsey is considered one of the top-tier firms.(AAP: Patrick Hamilton)

On the Zoom call, Mr Dawson said the firm strived to uphold high moral standards and sometimes struggled with which clients to accept and which to reject.

He said tobacco, liquor and gaming companies were the types of clients McKinsey had issues to navigate through when it came to working with them.

“For some people, coal is the next sin,” he said.

When asked about the Zoom meeting, a McKinsey spokesman told the ABC it was part of a commitment to ensure the work it took on today not only had an impact for its clients but also considered broader societal impacts.

Role during US opioid crisis

McKinsey’s ability to explore a problem can sometimes leave the broader social impacts out of scope.

By 2017, no-one could deny Australia and the US was in the grip of a growing opioid crisis.

Packets of OxyContin, Targin and Endone.
Major brands of painkillers with the active ingredient oxycodone.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

In July of that year, a report by Australia’s National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre found the rate of accidental deaths due to opioids had more than doubled among people aged 35 to 44.

About 70 per cent of deaths were due to opioid pharmaceutical drugs that were not heroin. These included strong prescription painkillers.

In the US, more than 90 Americans were overdosing every day in what was being described at the time as an “opioid overdose epidemic”.

In December 2017, in a Powerpoint presentation, McKinsey suggested to Purdue Pharma an innovative strategy to increase market share known as “event-based contracting”.

“We will pay additional rebates on any new OxyContin-related overdose or opioid use disorder diagnosis,” it said in the presentation.

Purdue Pharma has faced a slew of court cases in the US surrounding its marketing and sale of its painkiller medication.

Last month, it pleaded guilty to three criminal charges, formally taking responsibility for its part in an opioid epidemic in the US.

But it is not just in the US where marketing of the painkiller has caused problems.

In December 2019, the Australian affiliate of Purdue Pharma, Mundipharma Australia, was ordered to pay penalties of $302,400 by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), which described its marketing of painkiller Targin as “misleading, imbalanced and otherwise inaccurate”.

Mundipharma said at the time it “respectfully disagreed” with the TGA’s determination and said the marketing material was no longer in use.

At the time, the company also said its marketing materials were aimed at cautioning healthcare professionals and “to clarify that this should only be considered in specific circumstances and as part of an overall treatment program if deemed appropriate by healthcare professionals”.

Six days ago, McKinsey released a public statement acknowledging its role in helping Purdue increase sales of its addictive drug, and expressing regret.

“We recognize that we did not adequately acknowledge the epidemic unfolding in our communities or the terrible impact of opioid misuse and addiction on millions of families across the country,” the company said.

It said it had stopped doing any work on opioid-specific business anywhere in the world.

McKinsey did not answer whether its work with Purdue affected the drug’s marketing in Australia.

A spokesman from the Australian arm of the firm told the ABC that its work was designed to support the legal prescription and use of opioids for legitimate medical needs and any suggestion that its work sought to increase overdoses or misuse was wrong.

“That said, we recognise that we have a responsibility to take into account the broader context and implications of the work we do. Our work for Purdue fell short of that standard,” he said.



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Rugby warned it may face dementia epidemic


Rugby faces a dementia “epidemic” among retired professionals without serious reform of the game, the lawyer leading an action against the sport’s authorities has warned.

Richard Boardman, who is representing an initial group of seven players including 2003 England World Cup winner Steve Thompson, says doing nothing is not an option.

Thompson, 42, has been diagnosed with early onset dementia and says he has no recollection of his part in England’s glorious campaign in Australia 17 years ago.

Boardman says that, regardless of the outcome of the planned legal action against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union, immediate reform is required to prevent more players suffering like Thompson.

He said: “We believe up to 50 per cent of former professional rugby players could end up with neurological complications in retirement.

“That’s an epidemic, and whether you believe the governing bodies and World Rugby are liable or not, something has to be done to improve the game going forward.

“We can’t do trial by media, so now we’ve announced the litigation we’ve got to take a step back.

“But immediate changes need to be made to the game to protect the current generation and future players.

“The collisions are just as big now, the speed of the game, the workload, and there’s nothing to suggest what’s happened to Steve and Alix (Popham) and Michael (Lipman) won’t happen to current and future generations.”

Like Thompson, former Wales No.8 Popham and ex-England international Lipman are in their early 40s and suffering from early onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Boardman said the initial group could increase to 10 or 11 former players in total later this week or early next week, and that he is working with a group of 110 ex-players overall, ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s.

The NFL reached a settlement worth over half a billion pounds with players who had suffered brain injuries and, while Boardman could not put precise figures on it, he said that in cases of early onset dementia, the care costs were considerable.

“We’ve got a lot of guys in their early 40s, and by the time they get into their 50s a lot of them will be unable to work and will require a lot of healthcare,” he said.

“So the quantum for such claims will be considerable, certainly in the seven figures.”





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Desperation during the polio epidemic brought troubling treatments


TORONTO —
You’ve probably heard about David Onley.

He is remarkable for lots of reasons. He was Canada’s first news reporter with a visible disability. He’s been a dogged advocate for accessibility, and of course he was Ontario’s representative to the Queen as the 28th lieutenant-governor.

You probably haven’t heard about the time a man held a knife to his throat and threatened to kill him.

When Onley was three-years-old he contracted polio, a virus that left thousands of Canadian children dead or with permanent disabilities. In Onley’s case, it affected both of his arms and his legs.

He spent seven months at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. His parents could only visit once a week, and could only see him through a window. That separation had a lasting effect, perhaps as poignant as the virus itself.

“That was worse than not seeing them at all because after a while you just sort of forget about them,” Onley said from his Toronto home. “It creates major separation anxiety.”

When Onley returned home, a new anxiety set in – one that came from the doctor who was in charge of his physiotherapy.

“When he would arrive, it was like the scene out of the Exorcist,” Onley recalled. “The man with the black bag on the poster and the silhouette. I was initially terrified.”

As it turns out, it wasn’t the black bag and imposing silhouette that Onley needed to worry about. It was the doctor’s technique.

Onley was chosen for a controversial therapy, called “The Kenny Method.” It was named after Elizabeth Kenny, who was an Australian self-taught nurse credited by some as one of the pioneers of modern physiotherapy.

Her method was specifically meant for polio survivors and involved applying strips of hot, wet cloths to damaged limbs and then “exercising” them, which meant physically stretching them the way they should normally move. The premise was that it would prevent deformities and build up muscles.

It was painful. It was also effective.

Onley doesn’t recall the physician’s full name, but he certainly can see him when he closes his eyes. He was a local practitioner from Onley’s hometown of Midland, Ont. and made the trip to Scarborough to administer the Kenny Method in the kitchen of Onley’s grandparents’ home.

On the first day, the physician began the exercises, which were extremely painful. The doctor stopped and asked Onley’s parents and grandparents to leave the house.

“He didn’t want them to see him when he pulled out his knife and put it to my throat and said, ‘You move this leg or I’m going to slit your throat right now and let you bleed to death. Now move the leg,’” recalls Onley.

Onley was terrified. But the threat was effective.

“You know what? I moved the leg and I moved the arm and I moved whatever he wanted me to because I believed him,” he said.

He never spoke a word of the violent threat to anybody at the time. The treatment lasted seven days a week for months. At the end of it, Onley could ride a tricycle, walk and even run a bit.

That sort of physiotherapy wouldn’t fly today, of course. It would be headline news and result in the doctor getting his licence pulled. However, the “ultimate tough love,” as Onley describes it, worked. His parents saw substantial improvement over the months of the unorthodox treatment.

Onley is not traumatized by the memory. In fact, he speaks affectionately of his time with the doctor, who he felt genuinely cared about his rehabilitation. He can even laugh about it.

“I’ve never had difficulty following orders from that time on,” he said.

Years later, as an adult, Onley met the doctor again.

“He could see that I had definitely recovered and I knew it meant a great deal to him. We had some great conversations. He’s a great man,” says Onley.

Two years after Onley contracted the virus, Dr. Jonas Salk developed a polio vaccine, saving countless children from the debilitating effects of the epidemic’s worst cases. The vaccine took decades to fully take control of the disease and Canada didn’t declare itself polio-free until 1994.

That’s been the same case for most of the world, where the virus has almost completely been eradicated. However, that’s beginning to change.

COVID-19 has disrupted immunization programs around the globe and now new polio cases have begun to show up in places where the virus was once held at bay by the vaccine.

Eighty million babies have now missed critical vaccines, prompting the World Health Organization to sound the alarm and ask countries to re-instate their vaccination campaigns.

If you’re wondering if your child can still be vaccinated during the COVID-19 pandemic, contact your family health provider.

Onley, now 70, can’t say enough about the importance of vaccinations.

“Had the polio vaccine existed in the Tuesday before Labour Day 1953, I would have got it and my life would be completely different,” he said.

Although he went on to have a long and successful career, Onley wants people to know that just like with COVID-19, polio has long-term effects.

For him, lifelong effects include post-polio fatigue and, of course, mobility challenges. He says when a vaccine for COVID-19 comes along, no one will need to threaten him with a knife to get one.

“As soon as the COVID vaccine comes out I will get my shot.”



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Helsinki and Uusimaa still close to spreading stage of coronavirus epidemic


THE HOSPITAL DISTRICT of Helsinki and Uusimaa (HUS) has been close to the spreading stage of the coronavirus epidemic for quite some time, Kirsi Varhila, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, stated on YLE Radio 1 on Wednesday.

Varhila estimated that the hospital district must step up its measures to keep the epidemiological situation under control.

The situation, she highlighted, is critical especially in light of the large population of Uusimaa, which at 1.7 million accounts for over 30 per cent of the population of Finland.

“The coronavirus incidence has clearly been on the rise in recent weeks. The regional coronavirus coordination group will have to consider new measures to mitigate the situation in its meeting this week. I don’t think there’s any other option but to step up the measures,” analysed Varhila.

The Ministry of Social Affairs and Health uses criteria such as the incidence of cases, the share of positive tests, the traceability of cases and the burden on health care systems to determine whether a region is in the base, acceleration or spreading stage of the epidemic.

Varhila on Wednesday also confirmed that the government is looking to uphold internal border controls beyond Monday, 23 November.

“In European comparison, the disease situation is good in Finland. And we want to keep it good. We’ll try to make sure the justification from a health security perspective are such that they allow us to uphold the restrictions,” she commented to the public broadcasting company.

The Finnish government, she also revealed, will not make any decisions on vaccines until the turn of the year or early next year, as the vaccine will need to secure a sales permit before it is time for national decision-making.

“Only then can we decide whom to distribute [the vaccine] and in what kind of doses,” she reminded.

She added that it remains premature to speculate on the impact the possible vaccine could have on the instructions, recommendations and restrictions introduced due to the epidemic, as herd immunity cannot be achieved overnight. Officials, she said, will monitor the situation and the efficacy of the vaccine in the population before amending what have proven effective instructions.

Aleksi Teivainen – HT



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The other half – Measuring poverty in the midst of America’s covid-19 epidemic | United States


AT FIRST, A remarkable thing happened in the midst of an epidemic and the lockdown-induced recession. Poverty declined in America. A gargantuan stimulus package, which sent most households one-off cheques worth $1,200 or more and topped up unemployment benefits by $600 a week, buoyed millions of families above the official poverty line (set at $21,720 for a family of three). Ariel Kalil, a developmental psychologist at the University of Chicago, was conducting a long-running study on parental behaviour among poor parents (mostly single mothers) of young children in the city before the pandemic struck. Surveying these parents again when families were somewhat protected from the economic shock, she found parents and children getting along better despite the added stress from job losses.

Those supports expired in July, even as the pandemic persisted. And the reprieve proved transient. By August, poverty levels had nearly returned to their pre-pandemic levels. Other measures of hardship—like difficulties in affording food and housing—are at eye-popping levels, especially for less-educated workers and non-Asian minorities. The consequences for poor children might become apparent years from now in the form of reduced education, earnings and opportunity. With schooling, a theoretically equalising force, still disrupted and no vaccine yet, how can the extent of the damage be assessed?

Poverty measurement is usually a staid and slow affair. The Census Bureau issues an official number once a year. Using data from the monthly unemployment survey, however, economists have recently developed a procedure for generating timelier estimates to give real-time feedback. “We can explain the entire decline in poverty from April to June by the stimulus package,” says Bruce Meyer of the University of Chicago. His recent work, published with James X. Sullivan of the University of Notre Dame and Jeehoon Han of Zhejiang University, shows a nearly 15% drop in the poverty rate that then reversed after the stimulus lapsed (see chart). As before the pandemic struck, these rates are higher for African-Americans, workers without college degrees and children.

The Census Bureau has a new, more frequent survey which is designed to measure food insecurity, housing instability and other forms of distress. Among households with children, 14.4% reported not having enough to eat sometimes or often in the preceding seven days. For black and Hispanic households, this share rises to above 22%. Among those making less than $25,000 a year (and probably counting as officially poor), 35% report difficulty meeting this most basic need. These figures are high despite increased private and public attempts at relief. Food banks have reported operating at double capacity, and sometimes more. To compensate for children no longer receiving subsidised lunches at school, the federal government launched a programme to top up the nutrition-assistance benefits (“food stamps”, colloquially) for affected families. Though this amounted to just $5.70 per day of school missed, a recent analysis of that policy, published by the Hamilton Project, found that it reduced food hardship among children by 30%.

When food is difficult to afford, so is housing. Among renting families, 28% have little or no confidence in being able to pay next month’s rent (and some have already deferred it). Among Hispanic households who are renting, the share is 40%. This need not result in soaring homelessness. Citing the risk to public health of forced relocation during the pandemic, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has announced a nationwide moratorium on eviction. Many states and cities have issued their own moratoria as well. But these are temporary salves. Under the CDC scheme, rent missed is not forgiven.

No federal rescue

The picture from official government surveys matches that in self-reported ones. More than 40% of black, Latino and Native- American households said they had exhausted most or all of their savings (compared with 25% of whites) in a poll released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Robert Blendon of Harvard, who helped conduct the survey, likened the results to others he has conducted in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters like hurricanes. “I’m worried that there’s this false sense as the stockmarket does incredibly well that people’s lives are doing well,” says Richard Besser, the president of the foundation and former director of the CDC. “I’m worried coming into colder weather that there are so many people in America who have trouble paying for their utilities and putting food on the table.”

Indeed, all this is happening even as the stockmarket, President Donald Trump’s preferred economic barometer, has nearly recovered its yearly losses. The impact of the pandemic on economic growth overall is now expected to be more modest than once feared. These averages are encouraging, but a narrow focus on them ignores the serious problems for those at the bottom of the income distribution. “If we know anything about recessions, it’s that workers with low levels of education take a while to recover. And with kids out of school too, we can be sure that it will be bad for them too,” says Diane Schanzenbach, an economist at Northwestern University whose work has shown that government-nutrition programmes for children lead to better health and job-market opportunities later in life.

What chance is there of the federal government coming to the rescue? Talks between the House and the Treasury Secretary continue, but Congress is even less likely to put through a compromise package now that a Supreme Court battle looms. Even the programme to give boosted food stamps for children missing school came close to being scuppered during negotiations to fund the federal government.

States, cities and school districts are trying to cushion the blow. And charities are doing much more. Robin Hood, a large charity in New York City, has distributed $50m in relief since the city was hammered by the virus in March. Of that, $20m went to direct cash assistance for the most vulnerable—such as families whose breadwinner had died and undocumented immigrants, who don’t quality for aid. The City University of New York had 50,000 or more students who lost their jobs “overnight”, says Deb McCoy, who runs early childhood and youth programmes for Robin Hood. As extensive as these efforts are, they are little substitute for the fiscal firehose of the federal government. But those spigots are likely to stay closed for a few months more.

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “And the poor get poorer”

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Coronavirus: UK epidemic growing as R number goes above 1


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Evidence of rising coronavirus infections in recent weeks in the UK has prompted the government to increase the R number to between 1 and 1.2.

This indicates the epidemic is growing for the first time since March.

And a study of thousands of people in England found cases doubling every seven to eight days, with a marked rise in the north and among young people.

But officials say there are now worrying signs of infections in the elderly too.

The virus is still at much lower levels across the UK than at the peak of the pandemic in April.

New laws on how many people can socialise are being introduced from Monday.

The ‘rule of six’ will restrict indoor and outdoor gatherings in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The number of new daily confirmed UK cases of the virus has risen to 3,539 on Friday – an increase of more than 600 on yesterday.

Yvonne Doyle, medical director at Public Health England, said younger people “made up the greatest share of new cases” but she said older age groups, who are most a risk of serious illness, were now also being infected.

A PHE report says there has been “a particularly steep increase” in positive test results in the over-85s and, in the north west of England, a rise in people from that age group being admitted to hospital.

She warned people to follow social distancing rules, wash their hands regularly and wear a face covering in enclosed spaces.

Birmingham will become the latest area to bring in new restrictions after a spike in cases. Tougher restrictions now cover more than 1.75m people in the west of Scotland and, from Monday, face masks must be worn in shops in Wales.

Three separate large studies have indicated a widespread resurgence of coronavirus across the UK population.

And the R (reproduction) number – which describes how many others each infected person passes the virus on to – has also increased.

If it is higher than one, as now, numbers infected are growing.

‘A wake-up call for the nation’

The UK is entering a new stage of the coronavirus pandemic.

Since lockdown, we have been deciding how to react to falling cases. But now the R number has gone above the crucial level of 1 for the first time since March and is backed up by reams of data showing cases are growing again.

This is not just contained to hotspots like Bolton – one government advisor told me the rise was widespread across the country.

They said today was a “wake up call” for the nation. There are already some signs that the number of people being admitted to hospital is starting to rise.

But this is not a repeat of the build-up to lockdown. Cases are at a much lower level and they are growing more slowly.

Pre-lockdown, the R number was around three and cases were doubling every three to four days. It is around half that now.

Coronavirus is going to be a major challenge until we have a vaccine.

So the defining question as we head into a potentially difficult winter is how to balance keeping the virus in check with getting on with our lives.

The REACT study of more than 150,000 volunteers in England, one of the three new sources of data on community levels, found “accelerating transmission” at the end of August and start of September.

It said levels of infection were rising across England but particularly in the north east, north west and Yorkshire.

And there were increases in positive cases in all age groups up to the age of 65, with highest rates of growth in 18-24 year olds.

Prof Paul Elliott, director of the study at Imperial College London, said the data clearly showed “a concerning trend in coronavirus infections” where cases are growing quickly across England and “no longer concentrated in key workers”.

He said there was evidence of “an epidemic in the community” which was not the result of more people being tested.

The second set of data, from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates there were 39,700 new cases of the virus in England during the first week in September – 11,000 more than the previous week.

The ONS bases its figures on thousands of swab tests carried out in households, whether people have symptoms or not.

It estimated no increase in cases for the same week in Wales, but First Minister Mark Drakeford has announced people must now wear face masks in shops in response to rising case numbers in recent days.

Katherine Kent, from the ONS infection survey, said the results suggested “an increase in Covid-19 infections in England during recent weeks, with higher infection rates among 17-34 year olds”.

Nicola Sturgeon has warned that the average number of cases in Scotland has been “more than trebling every three weeks” with some areas of particular concern, including Lanarkshire and Greater Glasgow and Clyde.

And the third set of figures, from the Covid symptom study app, which tracks the health of nearly four million people in the UK, also suggests a growth in new cases since the end of August – the first time since mid-June there has been a significant rise in numbers.

Prof James Naismith, from the University of Oxford, said younger people would also have been affected to the same extent in January if testing had been available, but many things had changed since then for the better.

“We know that medical treatment and scientific advances have improved significantly, thus even with infection rates as bad as March and April, there will be many fewer deaths.

“The more people wash their hands and practise social distancing – especially by and around the vulnerable – the lower the number of deaths and illness we will see,” he said.



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Brussels key to controlling Belgian coronavirus epidemic, experts say – POLITICO


Masks are now mandatory in many areas of Brussels | Benoit Doppagne/AFP via Getty Images

Belgium’s spike in infections was mainly due to an outbreak in Antwerp, but now that is slowing down, experts are focusing on a spike in the capital.

The fate of Belgium’s coronavirus epidemic lies in the hands of Brussels, national experts have warned.

Belgium’s worrying spike in infections has mainly been caused by an outbreak in Antwerp, which accounts for a third of new cases. Antwerp introduced new restrictive measures, such as a nightly curfew, and has managed to bring the infections down by 17 percent. Experts are now turning their focus to Brussels.

“In Brussels the number of new infections is going up. Today, we even see an increase of 42 percent. If this number continues to go up like this, the national figure may go up again,” epidemiologist Brecht Devleesschauwer told VRT.

The Belgian capital is becoming a new hotspot and is seeing a rise in infections, while rates in the rest of the country are going down. The country reported 588 new cases per day over the past week through Sunday, which is slightly lower than the just over 600 reported cases last week.

Earlier this week Brussels imposed mandatory masks everywhere, which has been met with mixed levels of compliance. Experts say it will be a week at least before its effects will be seen.





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Millions Face New Virus Curbs As US Epidemic Forecast To Worsen


Millions of people faced new coronavirus restrictions Wednesday as infections surged in several parts of the globe, with researchers warning the epidemic in the US is set to get even worse.

With signs of a deteriorating US situation, the world’s largest retailer Walmart said it would require customers to wear masks at all its stores to help stop the virus spreading.

Countries from Spain to Australia have reimposed lockdowns and curbs to contain new outbreaks, as global cases surged past 13.2 million with more than 578,000 deaths reported since the pandemic emerged late last year in China.

Tens of thousands of cases are now being reported every day in the United States, which has the world’s highest death toll at 136,000, and the authorities are scrambling to roll back reopenings that were meant to revive economies.

Researchers said the latest models show the number of US fatalities in the US projected to rise to over 150,000 by next month, according to figures published on behalf of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).





Londoners react after the British government’s announcement that facemasks would be compulsory in shops and supermarkets in England from next week, in a U-turn on previous policy.
 AFPTV / Linda ABI ASSI

But one of the research groups said near-universal wearing of facemasks could save 40,000 lives between now and November.

The use of facemasks to slow the spread of the virus has become a political flashpoint in some countries, especially in the United States where President Donald Trump had resisted wearing one until recently and at times mocked the trend.

Walmart said it will require shoppers to wear facemasks starting July 20, joining a growing group of US businesses in mandating the protection as coronavirus cases have spiked.



Hong Kong's bars, gyms, and beauty salons closed again and a ban on gatherings with more than four people came into force


Hong Kong’s bars, gyms, and beauty salons closed again and a ban on gatherings with more than four people came into force
 AFP / Anthony WALLACE

“While we’re certainly not the first business to require face coverings, we know this is a simple step everyone can take for their safety and the safety of others in our facilities,” Walmart’s US Chief Operating Officer Dacona Smith said.

The company has more than 5,300 Walmart and Sam’s Club stores in the United States and is a giant presence in many of the southern and western states that have seen increases in cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks.



Colombia is among the countries that has returned to some form of virus lockdown over a spike in cases


Colombia is among the countries that has returned to some form of virus lockdown over a spike in cases
 AFP / JOAQUIN SARMIENTO

Despite the grim forecasts, American biotech firm Moderna said it would start the final stage of human trials for its vaccine candidate on July 27, after promising results from earlier testing.

Moderna is considered to be in a leading position in the global race to find a vaccine, and while its study should run until October 2022, preliminary results should be available long before then.



Many countries are opening up but keeping in place strict social distancing measures


Many countries are opening up but keeping in place strict social distancing measures
 AFP / Yasuyoshi CHIBA

Parts of the Asia-Pacific region, which had been somewhat successful in fighting the pandemic, provided fresh evidence of the deadly threat still posed by the virus.

Hong Kong’s bars, gyms, and beauty salons closed again Wednesday and a ban on gatherings of more than four people came into force as the city battled a fresh outbreak after months of success against the virus.



Londoners react after the British government's announcement that facemasks would be compulsory in shops and supermarkets in England from next week, in a U-turn on previous policy.


Londoners react after the British government’s announcement that facemasks would be compulsory in shops and supermarkets in England from next week, in a U-turn on previous policy.
 AFPTV / Linda ABI ASSI

Most of the city’s residents voluntarily adopted facemasks as a barrier against the virus when it was first detected in mainland China, but the Hong Kong government now requires passengers on public transport to wear them or risk a US$650 fine.

There was alarm in Japan too, where Tokyo’s governor warned that the capital was on its highest coronavirus alert level after a spike in infections.

That came after the Indian state of Bihar, with a population of around 125 million, announced a 15-day virus lockdown starting Thursday.

Thousands packed markets in Bihar’s Patna city to stock up before the restrictions begin at midnight.

“During the earlier lockdown, we ran out of rice and flour because failed to purchase ahead of lockdown,” said Neelam Devi, buying sacks of rice and flour. “This time we decided not to repeat the mistake.”

Authorities in Australia, meanwhile, pleaded Wednesday with the public to heed social distancing guidelines, with roughly five million people in Melbourne in lockdown since last week in a bid to contain a new outbreak.

That request came just days after a group was fined Aus$26,000 (US$18,200) when their house party was exposed by an unusually large order of KFC.

“A particular concern for us is the ongoing parties and gatherings — people playing poker, people holding parties,” said Rick Nugent, acting assistant commissioner of Victoria state.

“Please stop.”

With no vaccine or effective treatment widely available, experts have advised lockdowns and social distancing measures in some form to prevent the deadly pandemic from gaining even more momentum.

Disneyland Paris, Europe’s biggest private tourist attraction, reopened its gates, but also with limited access, a ban on hugging the famous characters and no princess makeovers.

European officials warned EU governments to prepare for a feared second wave of infections coinciding with the winter flu season on the continent that has seen a few spikes in cases since emerging from a peak of the pandemic.

“The virus is still with us,” EU Commissioner Margaritis Schinas said.





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