Letter from Berkshire County, Massachusetts
By Dave Inglis
Individual states of the Union have reacted differently to the coronavirus pandemic. In Massachusetts, which I left last week – I am writing this in Hastings – almost all places of social gathering, including bars and restaurants, have been compulsorily closed. Only ‘essential services’ are being delivered.
Berkshire county, where I was living, has a mixture of affluent incomers and an (on average) older working-class, once employed in mills and manufacturing. As here, there are some people who think that the economic shutdown has gone too far, others who feel that the authorities have not been draconian enough. Interestingly, these two attitudes cut across usual political leanings: some left-wing people want more intervention, some right-wing people too; libertarian views are also expressed on both left and right. But there is a general feeling on all sides, particularly among the lower income groups that will bear the brunt of the economic hardship, that the government has been incompetent, very slow to act, and is still failing to take sufficiently decisive action.
Unlike in Britain, there isn’t in principle a shortage of ventilators or facemasks. On the contrary, the Federal government has stockpiled them for years against the threat from foreign powers (‘the Axis of Evil’) of biological, nuclear or chemical attack. But they seem to have been slow to deploy them where needed in the current pandemic. Protective equipment for medical staff, who are clearly most exposed on the frontline, is apparently not, until very recently, getting through.
More fundamentally, testing for the virus has been measly. At the time of writing 14 residents of Berkshire county are announced to have tested positive. But at the principal hospital in Pittsfield, the largest city in the county (population 45,000), 170 medical workers have been sent home for self-isolation after reporting potential symptoms, very few of them having actually been tested. Who knows what the overall scale of infection may be?
Local businesses are attempting to ‘pivot’, i.e. diversify to meet changes in demand. Restaurants are trying to keep afloat by offering universal home deliveries. Customers of those restaurants and other affected services are buying gift certificates. There are short-term financial adjustments: suspension of mortgage payments, no enforcement of rights to repossess. But I think there will be a rising tide of resentment if the economic shutdown goes on for more than a few weeks, though the kindness and generosity of many individual citizens is also creating a myriad of co-operative solutions to problems that come up.
For now, there has been unprecedented demand at the supermarkets. Most Americans have no previous experience of any standard products not being instantly available to buy. More peculiarly to America, the two consumer items apparently most in demand, judging by the length of queues outside the shops selling them, are ‘weed’ (cannabis, which is legally smokable in Massachusetts) and hand guns. In normal times the most onerous task undertaken by the local police is running bears out of town. In the coming months, a local police chief friend of mine is expecting a rise not only in petty pilfering, but also in domestic violence.
I think it also possible that, if the government attempted more drastic action that prevents people earning a livelihood, there could be civil disobedience on a serious scale. In Britain we talk figuratively about being made to take unpalatable action ‘at the point of a gun’. In the USA it’s not always figurative and not necessarily just on the side of the civil authority.
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