News Brief: Reopening States, Jobless Claims, India's COVID-19 Crisis

Apr 16, 2020
Originally published on April 16, 2020 8:21 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, the president tries, again, to set the terms of when states move toward normal life.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So far this week, the president has said the decision was up to him, which it's not. Then he said he would authorize governors to decide - authorization they don't need. The governor of Illinois answered for many when he said science would decide his course. He told NPR the president's view was, quote, "an advisory opinion by somebody." Today, the president will give his opinion, promising guidance in a call with governors.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You already know we'll be opening up states, some states much sooner than others. And we think some of the states can actually open up before the deadline of May 1. And I think that that will be a very exciting time, indeed.

MARTIN: Except health officials and business leaders have insisted people should not return to jobs or stores until coronavirus testing and tracing is more widespread.

INSKEEP: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is with us. Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK. We know these cannot be orders. So what are they?

LIASSON: They're guidance. That's what the White House is going to do today, just like the initial set of criteria where it were guidance to states. The president, as you said, has already walked back his earlier claim that he and only he has total authority over the states' plans. Now he says the states will decide for themselves when and how they go back. But these guidelines are going to give some information to states about how to figure out what level of social distancing and quarantining will continue to be needed.

Do you ask older people to stay home, people with underlying conditions, whereas other people could go back to work? When to open schools? You know, Dr. Fauci has said over and over again, this is not going to be like flipping a switch. It's not going to happen all of a sudden. It's going to be halting and gradual and incremental. And sometimes, we'll take two steps forward and one step back if there's a flare-up in illness. People have to feel safe if they're going to go back to some modified version of business as usual.

INSKEEP: What would prompt the president, then, to be talking about some states opening as soon as May 1, which is a lot sooner than public health experts have been talking about?

LIASSON: The president says that some states just don't have a lot of illness. And those states could potentially open up earlier. We're going to see which governors want to do that. A lot of the president's conservative allies say that opening up as fast as possible is absolutely crucial. They say there's a big difference between opening on May 1 and June 1, because they say on June 1, you'll have lost jobs and companies that will never come back. But there are a lot of CEOs and governors who say the country has to open safely.

If people don't feel comfortable, they're not going to want to go to work. They're not going to want to go out to a restaurant. You know, Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and a big infectious disease philanthropist, says, you can't tell people, hey, go out to a restaurant, and ignore that pile of bodies over in the corner. So that's important. People have to feel safe. The head of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka, has said he wants to make sure there are protections for workers who are asked to go back to work.

INSKEEP: Well, Rachel alluded to the biggest protection that public health experts have identified, widespread or even universal testing so you know who has it. You can quarantine them. You can quarantine their contacts. You can contain a disease that is hard to treat directly at this point. Where does more widespread testing fit into the guidance?

LIASSON: Everyone is talking about widespread testing. The CEOs say that's what you need. The governors say that's what you need. You have to know who tests positive and who doesn't because you have to know who should still quarantine themselves and who can go back to work. And if you don't know who's sick and who's not, you're flying blind. And you have to put the whole economy into a medically induced coma, which is what we've had to do.

The president has played down the need for widespread testing. Our own colleague, Franco Ordoñez, asked him, do we need 750,000 tests a day, as public health officials have suggested? And he said, do we need that? No. Would it be nice to have it? Yes.

INSKEEP: Mara, thanks for the update.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Mara Liasson.

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INSKEEP: Today, we get another measure of the economic damage from the pandemic.

MARTIN: That's because it's Thursday, when the Labor Department releases the number of unemployment claims from the previous week. Each of the past few weeks, this number has been in the millions, totaling nearly 17 million new claims since the middle of March. Never in recent history have the claims come so quickly.

INSKEEP: NPR chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley is with us. Scott, Good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What do forecasters expect today?

HORSLEY: They expect to see several million more people filed first-time applications for unemployment last week. And as you point out, this is just another concrete indicator of the economic pain that's being caused by the coronavirus and by the very aggressive public health measures that the U.S. has adopted to try to slow this pandemic. There are certainly other indicators. This week, we learned that U.S. industrial production fell last month at the sharpest pace since 1946.

So this is really akin to the demobilization we saw after World War II. We also learned yesterday that retail sales in March fell at the sharpest pace on record. But it is really these weekly unemployment claims that have become sort of the economic equivalent of the daily hospital counts as something close to a real-time indicator of the path of this pandemic.

INSKEEP: Well, people keep looking for a peak in those hospital numbers, where it's still very bad but at least not getting worse every day. Might we have reached the point where unemployment is not getting worse every week?

HORSLEY: Well, the aggregate number, of course, goes only in one direction, which is up. But there are some signs that today's figure, while still very bad, may not be quite as terrible as the 6 million-plus figure that we got in the two previous weeks. The folks at Pantheon Macroeconomics point to several states that offer their unemployment claims in advance of the national figures - Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Rhode Island, Arizona.

The trend line in those states does suggest somewhat fewer people filed for unemployment benefits last week than in the two previous weeks. Also, Google searches on how do you file for unemployment have been tapering off just a bit. So just as with the hospital headcounts - you know, every person filing for unemployment is painful. But it is possible that the first big wave of this pandemic in terms of layoffs has crested. And we're now going to see some decline.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. You're saying this could still be very bad. So it could be millions of people, meaning we could be up over 20 million people, say, over the last several weeks since we're already at 17 million. And you just said the first big wave of unemployment?

HORSLEY: That's right. You know, and it's possible there are ripple effects. There are secondary effects, you know. The first people who felt the pain were the folks in the tourism business. Then we saw retailers and restaurants and bars. But there are spillover effects. And the people that supply those, that provide services to those businesses, they can be affected, too. So there could - it's possible we could see a second wave.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR economics correspondent Scott Horsley will be standing by to give us the real numbers when we have them. Scott, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Steve.

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INSKEEP: Police in India are doing what sounds, at first, like the right thing.

MARTIN: They're busy contact tracing, looking for people linked with a cluster of coronavirus cases. But there's now suspicion about that very effort because the police are focusing on a group of Muslims. They're members of India's biggest religious minority. And they are worried about their rights under a Hindu nationalist government.

INSKEEP: NPR's India correspondent Lauren Frayer is on the line currently from the U.K. reporting on this story. Hey there, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why are police focused on Muslims?

FRAYER: Because of this group called Tablighi Jamaat. It's a Muslim missionary group. And it held this gigantic conference in India's capital, New Delhi, last month in violation of social distancing rules. And that conference ended up being a huge coronavirus hotspot. Thousands of people are believed to have caught the coronavirus from attendees at that conference, who then went home and ended up spreading the virus around the country.

Now, police have filed charges against leaders of the group for holding a gathering of more than 50 people, which was in violation of the rules at the time. And now, today, they've just announced additional charges of culpable homicide. Now, those leaders, some of them are in hiding. Their lawyer issued a statement urging followers to cooperate with the police, follow the lockdown rules now. But we are seeing a spate of attacks.

INSKEEP: You mean attacks against this Muslim group?

FRAYER: Yes, attacks against members of the group, but then also attacks against anyone who's just Muslim. And so the danger is that, suddenly, a whole religious faith falls under suspicion. I spoke to Zia Nomani (ph). He's a tech worker in the southern city of Bengaluru. And he volunteered at a weekend food drive for the poor. He's a Muslim. And he says that some Hindu volunteers there harassed him, identified him as a Muslim because of what he was wearing.

ZIA NOMANI: They saw me wearing a kurta. And they started saying that we should be taught a lesson and all. And it's time that you leave from here. And within 10 seconds, you should be away from here.

FRAYER: So Zia managed to get away. But some other Muslims in his group came under attack with cricket bats. Some of them were accused of spitting in the food they were giving out to the poor. There's been a lot of misinformation on social media accusing Muslims of intentionally spreading the coronavirus. And there's this hashtag that's trending now, #coronajihad. The idea is that the virus is somehow a tool of Muslim holy war. And this has all been fanned, of course, by these right-wing TV channels that have contributed to this sort of frenzy of misinformation and of anger.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should mention, if we're talking right-wing in India, we mean something closer to Hindu nationalism than whatever right-wing might mean elsewhere. Where does the Hindu nationalist government stand in all of this?

FRAYER: Well, Zia, the tech worker we just heard from, says his attackers identified themselves as members of the RSS, a Hindu group with close ties to the Indian government. Myself and other foreign correspondents had a briefing last week with government officials. We asked them about this wave of attacks against Muslims. A foreign ministry official denied there's been any violence and says, this is not about any faith as a whole. It's about this one Muslim missionary group that did spread the virus. But Hindu nationalists are in power, as you said. And many of them are famous for their anti-Muslim rhetoric. So they're being accused of not doing enough to discourage discrimination right now.

INSKEEP: And the key phrase there - denied there was any violence at all. Lauren, thanks so much.

FRAYER: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: Really appreciate your reporting. NPR's Lauren Frayer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.