The official count of Americans lost to COVID-19 has surpassed 1 million. It is the latest grim milestone that has marked the progression of deaths and infections since the virus took hold in the U.S. in March 2020.
Such numbers make it hard to memorialize individuals – a problem that has existed throughout the ages.
As a scholar who studies Greek myth and has written a book about psychology and Homer’s epic poem, the “Odyssey,” I keep trying to understand what we have experienced in the U.S. during the COVID-19 era through my research.
Greek texts cannot name all their countless fallen heroes, but they show how to honor the lives of those lost to war or plague, and the significance of doing so.
Moral tales and the countless dead
Some of the earliest texts about deaths in plagues and war from ancient Greece emphasize the difference between the individuals who lead their citizens into disasters and the masses of people who suffer and die because of them.
Homer’s other epic, the “Iliad,” set in the conflict between the Greeks and the city of Troy, starts out by lamenting the “myriad Greeks sent to their doom” not by the war itself but the superhuman rage of Achilles, son of the goddess Thetis, and the most powerful of the Greek warriors. Achilles’ rage during the war against his commanding officer, Agamemnon, leads to the deaths of his own people.
Nameless victims also haunt Sophocles’ Athenian tragedy, “Oedipus Tyrannus,” or “Oedipus the King,” when a plague afflicts the city of Thebes. An oracle says the plague will not end until the killer of Oedipus’ father Laius is brought to justice. Oedipus struggles to realize that he is the killer and cause of the plague, as the one who murdered his father and married his mother, not knowing who they are.
Probably the most famous account of a plague from ancient Greece comes from Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War,” a generation-long war between the city-states of Athens and Sparta from 432 to 404 B.C. Thucydides describes how a plague overtook Athens in 430 B.C.
Thucydides’ first-person account describes fevers and boils and frustrated doctors, but little sense of the individuals who suffered from it. Instead, he focuses on the breakdown of social order, how people abandoned their neighbors and loved ones, and how, shockingly, traditional burial rites were abandoned.
Modern estimates put the Athenian losses in this plague at 25% of the population, perhaps over 75,000 people.
Can we even conceive of the numbers?
Homer and Sophocles do not give names to individuals among the dead masses. As the narrator in the Iliad announces, someone would need “ten mouths and an inexhaustible voice” to name all those who fought at Troy. The contrast between the large numbers of undifferentiated dead and the heroes or leaders responsible for them helps the readers think about culpability. But this might also be a reflection of the limits of human cognition.
Our brains are not well suited to comprehending large numbers: We are good at comparing sums, but the larger a number gets, the harder it is for us to attach concrete meaning to it. This is in part why the milestone COVID-19 death tolls of 100,000 and 1,000,000 may mean as much to us as the “myriad deaths of Greeks” at the beginning of the “Iliad.”
Our ability to identify with and feel compassion for victims of violence decreases as the number lost increases, leaving us numb. We are also psychologically better suited at mourning our near and dear ones, or a handful of people, than a group. This is, lamentably, why mass killings and genocides are so difficult for many people to process emotionally.
Burial and rhetoric
Our inability to comprehend large numbers of the dead render them faceless and nameless. This can create a tension with practices for honoring those we have lost. Greek myth centers burial rites as the honor due to the dead. Their practices included caring for the body through cremation or burial, but also through lamentation and the creation of memory.
Indeed, the final two books of Homer’s “Iliad” are lessons in how to memorialize the dead. First, Achilles holds a funeral and games in honor of his friend Patroclus, and then the Trojans retrieve and mourn their fallen defender, Hektor.
The eulogies of modern funerals function in part to help create a shared memory of a lost loved one. COVID-19, however, has not only exhausted people’s capacity to grieve through sheer numbers, it has also disrupted memorial practices.
In ancient Athens, there was a practice of providing an annual funeral speech for those who had died in service to the city. The speech was a sacred occasion that provided honor to the dead as a group. These speeches connected their sacrifice to civic survival and the glory of the state, situating their deaths in a story that connected their survivors’ past with future endeavors.
One of the most famous examples of ancient rhetoric comes from this practice. Thucydides places the funeral speech of Pericles, the leader of Athens and architect of its war with Sparta, at the end of the first year of the conflict, right before the onset of the plague. Pericles rallies his people not to mourn their losses but to praise their sacrifice.
The politics of counting
Nations can choose to memorialize the dead through a monument or a holiday. Such memorialization arises from a public and political will. But the number of lives lost are subject to selection.
U.S. COVID-19 deaths, for example, may be undercounted by a third because of local and national decisions on record keeping and classification. The impact of these losses is impossible to estimate. Worldwide, COVID-19 has become a long-term disabling event for millions. In the United States alone, a quarter of a million children have lost a caregiver to the pandemic.
It is important to count the numbers and to tell their stories, because what countries officially count in part communicates who they think matters. Consider, for instance, that the the number of Iraqis and Afghans killed during America’s wars in those regions is not known. By contrast, the number of American servicemen killed is well known.
The contrast between what is countable and what is felt brings tension to the stories of the Iliad, Oedipus and Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War.” Poorly read, these narratives glorify their failed leaders, but careful consideration can help readers see how many were lost to preserve a handful of names.
Who our nations count today will go a long way in telling future generations the story of the COVID-19 era. And it will also help define those who lived through it.
Joel Christensen does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.deaths pandemic covid-19
$265 Billion In Added Value To Evaporate From Germany Economy Amid Energy Crisis, Study Warns
$265 Billion In Added Value To Evaporate From Germany Economy Amid Energy Crisis, Study Warns
A new report published by the Employment Research…
A new report published by the Employment Research (IAB) on Tuesday outlines how Germany's economy will lose a whopping 260 billion euros ($265 billion) in added value by the end of the decade due to high energy prices sparked by Russia's invasion of Ukraine which will have severe ramifications on the labor market, according to Reuters.
IAB said Germany's price-adjusted GDP could be 1.7% lower in 2023, with approximately 240,000 job losses, adding labor market turmoil could last through 2026. It expects the labor market will begin rehealing by 2030 with 60,000 job additions.
The report pointed out the hospitality industry will be one of the biggest losers in the coming downturn that the coronavirus pandemic has already hit. Consumers who have seen their purchasing power collapse due to negative real wage growth as the highest inflation in decades runs rampant through the economy will reduce spending.
IAB said energy-intensive industries, such as chemical and metal industries, will be significantly affected by soaring power prices.
In one scenario, IAB said if energy prices, already up 160%, were to double again, Germany's economic output would crater by nearly 4% than it would have without energy supply disruptions from Russia. Under this assumption, 660,000 fewer people would be employed after three years and still 60,000 fewer in 2030.
This week alone, German power prices hit record highs as a heat wave increased demand, putting pressure on energy supplies ahead of winter.
Rising power costs are putting German households in economic misery as economic sentiment across the euro-area economy tumbled to a new record low. What happens in Germany tends to spread to the rest of the EU.
There are concerns that a sharp weakening of growth in Germany could trigger stagflation as German inflation unexpectedly re-accelerated in July, with EU-Harmonized CPI rising 8.5% YoY.
"We are facing the biggest crisis the country has ever had. We have to be honest and say: First of all, we will lose the prosperity that we have had for years," Rainer Dulger, head of the Confederation of German Employers' Associations, warned last month.
Besides Dulger, Economy Minister Robert Habeck warned of a "catastrophic winter" ahead over Russian NatGas cut fears.
Other officials and experts forecast bankruptcies, inflation, and energy rationing this winter that could unleash a tsunami of shockwaves across the German economy.
Yasmin Fahimi, the head of the German Federation of Trade Unions, warned last month:
"Because of the NatGas bottlenecks, entire industries are in danger of permanently collapsing: aluminum, glass, the chemical industry."
IAB's report appears to be on point as the German economy seems to be diving head first into an economic crisis. Much of this could've been prevented, but Europe and the US have been so adamant about slapping Russia with sanctions that have embarrassingly backfired.
Will Powell Pivot? Don’t Count On It
Stocks are rallying on hopes that Jerome Powell and the Fed will stop increasing interest rates this fall, pivot, and start reducing them next year. For…
Stocks are rallying on hopes that Jerome Powell and the Fed will stop increasing interest rates this fall, pivot, and start reducing them next year. For fear of missing out on the next great bull run, many investors are blindly buying into this new Powell pivot narrative.
What these investors fail to realize is the Fed has a problem. Inflation is raging, the likes of which the Fed hasn’t dealt with since Jerome Powell earned his law degree from Georgetown University in 1979.
Despite inflation, markets seem to assume that today’s Fed has the same mindset as the 1990-2021 Fed. The old Fed would have stopped raising rates when stocks fell 20% and certainly on the second consecutive negative GDP print. The current Fed seems to want to keep raising rates and reducing its balance sheet (QT).
The market-friendly Fed we grew accustomed to over the last few decades may not be driving the ship anymore. Yesterday’s investment strategies may prove flawed if a new inflation-minded Fed is at the wheel.
Of course, you can ignore the realities of today’s high inflation and take Jim Cramer’s ever-bullish advice.
When the Fed gets out of the way, you have a real window and you’ve got to jump through it. … When a recession comes, the Fed has the good sense to stop raising rates,” the “Mad Money” host said. “And that pause means you’ve got to buy stocks.
Shifting Market Expectations
On June 10, 2022, the Fed Funds Futures markets implied the Fed would raise the Fed Funds rate to 3.20% in January 2023 and to 3.65% by July 2023. Such suggests the Fed would raise rates by almost 50bps between January and July.
Now the market implies Fed Funds will be 3.59% in January, up .40% in the last two months. However, the market implies July Fed Funds will be 3.52%, or .13% less than its January expectations. The market is pricing in a rate reduction between January and July.
The graph below highlights the recent shift in market expectations over the last two months.
The graph below from the Daily Shot shows compares the market’s implied expectations for Fed Funds (black) versus the Fed’s expectations. Each blue dot represents where each Fed member thinks Fed Funds will be at each year-end. The market underestimates the Fed’s resolve to increase interest rates by about 1%.
Short Term Inflation Projections
The biggest flaw with pricing in predicting a stall and Powell pivot in the near term is the possible trajectory of inflation. The graph below shows annual CPI rates based on three conservative monthly inflation data assumptions.
If monthly inflation is zero for the remainder of 2022, which is highly unlikely, CPI will only fall to 5.43%. Yes, that is much better than today’s 9.1%, but it is still well above the Fed’s 2.0% target. The other more likely scenarios are too high to allow the Fed to halt its fight against inflation.
Inflation on its own, even in a rosy scenario, is not likely to get Powell to pivot. However, economic weakness, deteriorating labor markets, or financial instability could change his mind.
Recession, Labor, and Financial Instability
GDP just printed two negative quarters in a row. Some economists call that a recession. The NBER, the official determiner of recessions, also considers the health of the labor markets in their recession decision-making.
The graph below shows the unemployment rate (blue), recessions (gray), and the number of months the unemployment rate troughed (red) before each recession. Since 1950 there have been eleven recessions. On average, the unemployment rate bottoms 2.5 months before an official recession declaration by the NBER. In seven of the eleven instances, the unemployment rate started rising one or two months before a recession.
The unemployment rate may start ticking up shortly, but consider it is presently at a historically low level. At 3.5%, it is well below the 6.2% average of the last 50 years. Of the 630 monthly jobs reports since 1970, there are only three other instances where the unemployment rate dipped to 3.5%. There are zero instances since 1970 below 3.5%!
Despite some recent signs of weakness, the labor market is historically tight. For example, job openings slipped from 11.85 million in March to 10.70 in June. However, as we show below, it remains well above historical norms.
A tight labor market that can lead to higher inflation via a price-wage spiral is of concern for the Fed. Such fear gives the Fed ample reason to keep tightening rates even if the labor markets weaken. For more on price-wage spirals, please read our article Persistent Inflation Scares the Fed.
Besides economic deterioration or labor market troubles, financial instability might cause Jerome Powell to pivot. While there were some growing signs of financial instability in the spring, those warnings have dissipated.
For example, the Fed pays close attention to the yield spread between corporate bonds and Treasury bonds (OAS) for signs of instability. They pay particular attention to yield spreads of junk-rated corporate debt as they are more volatile than investment-grade paper and often are the first assets to show signs of problems.
The graph below plots the daily intersections of investment grade (BBB) OAS and junk (BB) OAS since 1996. As shown, the OAS on junk-rated debt is almost 3% below what should be expected based on the robust correlation between the two yield spreads. Corporate debt markets are showing no signs of instability!
Stocks, on the other hand, are lower this year. The S&P 500 is down about 15% year to date. However, it is still up about 25% since the pandemic started. More importantly, valuations have fallen but are still well above historical averages. So, while stock prices are down, there are few signs of equity market instability. In fact, the recent rally is starting to elicit FOMO behaviors so often seen in speculative bullish runs.
Declining yields, tightening yield spreads, and rising asset prices are inflationary. If anything, recent market stability gives the Fed a reason to keep raising rates. Ex-New York Fed President Bill Dudley recently commented that market speculation about a Fed pivot is overdone and counterproductive to the Fed’s efforts to bring down inflation.
What Does the Fed Think?
The following quotes and headlines have all come out since the late July 2022 Fed meeting. They all point to a Fed with no intent to stall or pivot despite its effect on jobs and the economy.
- *KASHKARI: 2023 RATE CUTS SEEM LIKE `VERY UNLIKELY SCENARIO’
- Fed’s Kashkari: concerning inflation is spreading; we need to act with urgency
- *BOWMAN: SEES RISK FOMC ACTIONS TO SLOW JOB GAINS, EVEN CUT JOBS
- *DALY: MARKETS ARE AHEAD OF THEMSELVES ON FED CUTTING RATES
- St. Louis Fed President James Bullard says he favors a strategy of “front-loading” big interest-rate hikes, repeating that he wants to end the year at 3.75% to 4% – Bloomberg
- FED’S BULLARD: TO GET INFLATION COMING DOWN IN A CONVINCING WAY, WE’LL HAVE TO BE HIGHER FOR LONGER.
- “If you have to cut off the tail of a dog, don’t do it one inch at a time.”- Fed President Bullard
- “There is a path to getting inflation under control,” Barkin said, “but a recession could happen in the process” – MarketWatch
- The Fed is “nowhere near” being done in its fight against inflation, said Mary Daly, the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank president, in a CNBC interview Tuesday. –MarketWatch
- “We think it’s necessary to have growth slow down,” Powell said last week. “We actually think we need a period of growth below potential, to create some slack so that the supply side can catch up. We also think that there will be, in all likelihood, some softening in labor market conditions. And those are things that we expect…to get inflation back down on the path to 2 percent.”
We are highly doubtful that Powell will pivot anytime soon. Supporting our view is the recent action of the Bank of England. On August 4th they raised interest rates by 50bps despite forecasting a recession starting this year and lasting through 2023. Central bankers understand this inflation outbreak is unique and are caught off guard by its persistence.
The economy and markets may test their resolve, but the threat of a long-lasting price-wage spiral will keep the Fed and other banks from taking their foot off the brakes too soon.
We close by reminding you that inflation will start falling in the months ahead, but it hasn’t even officially peaked yet.recession unemployment pandemic treasury bonds bonds corporate bonds sp 500 stocks fomc fed federal reserve spread recession gdp interest rates unemployment
Airlines Are Going to Hate it if Biden Gets This Through
The administration is considering doing something about one of the things people hate most about flying.
The administration is considering doing something about one of the things people hate most about flying.
The airline industry has had a very bumpy road back to whatever passes for normalcy in the covid era. This past weekend was a particularly bad headache for air travelers, as 950 flights were canceled on Sunday, and 8,000 were delayed. It was a tough weekend overall, as 657 flights were canceled on Saturday, and 7,267 flights were also delayed that day.
In fact, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, of the more than 2.73 million flights so far in 2022, roughly 20% have been delayed while 3% were canceled.
The reasons for this are myriad. Climate change is leading to increasingly unpredictable weather. While many people are beginning to act like covid is over, that’s just not the case, and many flights are still getting canceled because crew members have become infected and need to quarantine.
Additionally, the airlines are all understaffed, as the industry lost more than 400,000 workers during the pandemic. Many pilots retired, and the industry has struggled to attract enough people to replace them in a tight labor market. Additionally, the workers who stayed report that they feel burnt-out and overworked, and in some instances fear for their safety.
This leads to more workers quitting or calling in sick, and therefore flights get canceled because there’s not enough people to work them.
Cancelations are a headache no matter which way you slice it. But a proposal from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg might make it easier for customers to get a refund in a timely manner.
Want A Refund For A Canceled Flight? Good Luck!
Getting a refund for a canceled flight is like pulling teeth.
Technically, it is federal law that consumers are entitled to a refund if an airline cancels a flight and the consumer chooses not to travel, as the Department of Transportation has stated customers can get a refund if the airline “made a significant schedule change and/or significantly delays a flight and the consumer chooses not to travel,” according to the Department of Transportation.
But the problem, as noted by ABC News, is that the “DOT has not defined what constitutes a “significant delay.” According to the agency, whether you are entitled to a refund depends on multiple factors, including the length of the delay, the length of the flight and “your particular circumstances.”
It’s rare for an airline to just say “tough luck” and not give the customer anything after a cancellation. (Imagine the social media firestorm!) But while there’s no industry-wide standard, most airlines just issue vouchers or credits for a future flight instead of a cash refund, which ties the customer to that airline in the future.
What’s even more frustrating is that very often these vouchers will expire within a year, which doesn’t always work for many people’s travel plans. Though to be fair, Southwest (LUV) - Get Southwest Airlines Company Report did recently announce they would be changing this policy, removing all expiration dates from flight credits.
Mayor Pete Wants To Make Refunds Easier
Buttigieg has announced a proposal that would expand customer rights in terms of protections cancelations and refunds for both domestic and international flights. “This new proposed rule would protect the rights of travelers and help ensure they get the timely refunds they deserve from the airlines,” states Buttigieg.
Under the proposal, passengers who do not accept alternate transportation (i.e. getting bumped to a later flight) will be eligible for a refund for any of the below circumstances.
- If your flight is canceled
- Whenever departure or arrival times are delayed by at least three hours for domestic flights or by at least six hours for international flights, if flyers opt-out of taking the flight
- Anytime the departure or arrival airport changes or the number of connections is increased on an itinerary
- If the original aircraft has to be replaced by another but there’s a major difference in the onboard amenities offered and overall travel experience as a result
The proposal would require airlines to issue vouchers, with no expiration date, when passengers are “unable to fly for certain pandemic-related reasons, such as government-mandated bans on travel, closed borders, or passengers advised not to travel to protect their health or the health of other passengers.”
But if an airline or ticket agency received pandemic-related government assistance, they would be required to issue cash refunds instead of vouchers.
In an interview with The Points Guy, Buttigieg said “Every step moves us further towards passengers being more protected,” he said. “This is based on authorities that have built up over time, but it’s clear that the passenger experience isn’t good enough, and we need to do more to clarify airlines’ responsibilities and to make clear what we’re going to do to enforce them.”
While this is just a proposal at the moment, Buttigieg said “I think we can move this one pretty quickly, barring any surprises.” He added that “We are going to be responsive to feedback and the suggestions that come in.”
If you have thoughts on this matter, the public is invited to attend a virtual meeting hosted by the Aviation Consumer Protection Advisory Committee that’s scheduled for Aug. 22, 2022. Any comments you wish to make about this proposal can be submitted here under docket number DOT-OST-2022-0089.
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