News Brief: Stimulus Debate, Pollution Study, Cyclone Amphan

May 20, 2020
Originally published on May 20, 2020 7:51 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Thirty-five million Americans are out of work because of the coronavirus pandemic. The big question now is, what will make this better?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Congress has approved trillions of dollars in aid to the U.S. economy. Fed chair Jerome Powell said at a Senate hearing yesterday, that money, enormous as it is, may not last as long as the downturn does. At the same hearing, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin warned of permanent damage if states do not begin reopening. Public health experts warn that moving too soon, though, would add to the risk of further shutdowns.

KING: NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley was watching that hearing yesterday. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: All right. So Jerome Powell - no radical - says more aid might be needed. Did he say why and how much?

HORSLEY: You know, Powell is arguing that recovery from this pandemic could take a long time, maybe until the end of next year. And the relief measures that have been authorized so far are set to run out well before that. The $1,200 relief payments have already been spent in many cases. The loans to small businesses are only supposed to cover a couple of months' worth of expenses. And the extra unemployment benefits, that $600 a week that Congress authorized, that's set to expire at the end of July. So Powell told the Senate Banking Committee, you know, additional federal help could be needed to avoid lasting damage to the economy.

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JEROME POWELL: What Congress has done to date has been remarkably timely and forceful. I think we - you could say the same about what we've done. I do think we need to take a step back and ask, over time, is it enough? And we need to be prepared to act further. And I would say we are if the need is there.

HORSLEY: Powell is warning that the pandemic's economic damage is temporary. But if it drags on long enough without additional federal aid, you know, workers might drop out. Businesses might fold. And that would make the recovery that much slower and more difficult.

KING: And just to clarify, he said recovery could take until the end of next year, meaning the end of 2021?

HORSLEY: Correct.

KING: Wow. OK. So what kind of reception did his remarks get on Capitol Hill?

HORSLEY: You know, in the first few weeks of this pandemic, we saw a lot of bipartisan cooperation. Both Democrats and Republicans couldn't wait to shovel money out the door. But we're not really seeing that now. House Democrats did pass that $3 trillion relief bill last week. But it's been dismissed both in the White House and in the GOP-controlled Senate. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell indicated he's in no hurry to approve additional spending.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: We still believe, with regard to the coronavirus, we need to assess what we've already done, take a look at what worked and what didn't. And we'll discuss the way forward in the next couple of weeks.

HORSLEY: So a, you know, gradual timetable. Republicans are more focused on things like protecting employers from lawsuits if their workers get sick. President Trump paid a visit to the Hill yesterday. He met with GOP senators. Afterwards, the president talked about hopes for a much more speedy recovery. Of course, if that were to happen, it would make additional aid less necessary. And it would also be good for Trump's reelection chances.

KING: But is it likely to happen, that the economy will bounce back by the end of this year?

HORSLEY: You know, it depends on the path of the virus, Noel, and also, public attitudes, frankly. You know, how quickly do people feel comfortable going shopping again or going to restaurants or traveling? There are some small signs of economic improvement. Although, you have to really squint hard to see them.

There's been a little uptick in online job postings. Airport traffic has gone from being 95% below last year's levels to now just 91% below last year's levels. More people paid their rent on time in May than April, maybe because they got their unemployment checks. Gasoline sales are up a little bit. On the other hand, there's still a big hole in state and local government budgets. And that could lead to a whole nother round of layoffs.

KING: NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley. Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

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KING: All right. So people are driving a lot less during the pandemic. And that means that air pollution is down.

INSKEEP: But levels of a key pollutant are not down nearly as much as you might guess. NPR analyzed six years of Environmental Protection Agency data and found that pollution barely decreased in some cities. Why would that be?

KING: NPR's science reporter Rebecca Hersher has some answers. Good morning, Becky (ph).

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: I mean, we expected nice things...

HERSHER: (Laughter).

KING: ...All of those pictures of clear skies over Los Angeles. And then you did some digging. And you found out pollution isn't really all that down.

HERSHER: Yeah, not that much, especially given how many cars are off the road. You know, traffic dropped about 40% nationwide starting in mid-March. But I worked with a team of reporters at NPR. And we looked at levels of an air pollutant called ozone starting at that same time. And ozone is bad for health. It exacerbates respiratory and cardiovascular disease. And it forms when pollution from cars, but also from factories and power plants, mixes with sunlight.

So we wanted to know, with all of these cars off the road, is there a lot less of this air pollutant? So my colleagues Jingnan Huo and Robert Benincasa from our investigations team analyzed air monitor measurements for ozone from all over the country. And they compared the measurements this spring, starting in mid-March, when most Americans started to self-isolate, to ozone measurements from the previous five years. And what they found is that ozone went down by 15% or less in most of the country.

KING: OK. So not that much, which I could understand in a city like New York where, you know, most people don't have cars. But what about places where everyone drives, like LA?

HERSHER: Yeah. So my colleague, climate reporter Lauren Sommer, looked into that. And what she found is, sure, when people started isolating in LA in mid-March, the air seemed to get a lot cleaner. It was actually the largest stretch of clean air in decades. But it was also really rainy. And rain helps clear the air.

So more recently, as things have warmed up, the air in LA has hit unhealthy levels again. And the reason is that cars actually aren't the biggest source of pollution there, it's heavy-duty trucks. And those have stayed on the road. So 30% of the country's shipping container traffic comes through the ports around LA. And a lot of that stuff is moved by truck.

KING: OK. So what about other parts of the country where trucks aren't a big thing?

HERSHER: Yeah. So we looked at a couple places like that. Take Houston, Texas, for example - also very car-centric. But it's a huge petrochemical center. And a lot of those places stayed open during the lockdown, those industrial facilities. We found that ozone decreased less in Houston than in LA. And scientists are looking into the connection between that pollution and refineries and industrial sites. Or take the Ohio River Valley. We also found that where coal is burned around there - so I say Pittsburgh - the air is not much cleaner now than when all the cars were on the road.

KING: Oh, that's really interesting. You cover climate science for NPR. The news is often very dark. Is there something we're learning from this, some ray of light, maybe?

HERSHER: Oh, you want the good news.

KING: Yes, please. Yes.

HERSHER: (Laughter) Actually, scientists are really excited about this because it's an accidental experiment. It can help them understand more about how pollution sources work, where pollution comes from, how it travels, how it lingers. And that can help communities put together more effective plans to reduce pollution in the future. So there's your good news.

KING: NPR's Rebecca Hersher. Thanks, Becky.

HERSHER: Thanks so much.

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KING: Here in the U.S., we call them hurricanes. But in South Asia, they're called cyclones.

INSKEEP: The biggest cyclone in 20 years is hitting India and Bangladesh today. Cyclone Amphan has winds above 100 miles per hour. And it's hitting during Ramadan, when Muslims are fasting during the day - and also during the coronavirus pandemic, when people are trying to maintain social distance.

KING: NPR's Lauren Frayer covers the subcontinent. Good morning, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: OK. So give me a sense of the geography. Where is this cyclone coming from? And where is it going to hit?

FRAYER: So the storm is currently swirling in the Bay of Bengal. And it's heading for land just where eastern India and Bangladesh meet. This is a very low-lying area. You know, much of Bangladesh, actually, is an enormous river delta. There are several rivers that come down from the Himalayas, eventually feed out into the Indian Ocean right there. So this is a marshy area, extremely prone to floods in the best of times. As you said, this is the worst storm in 20 years. The last one this strong killed 10,000 people there.

KING: That's absolutely terrifying. What are people there telling you?

FRAYER: So I've spent the morning on the phone with aid workers on both sides of that border. And they described flimsy fishermen's huts with thatched roofs flying off, mud walls collapsing. Millions of people have been evacuated from this sort of three-mile-deep band along the coast. And officials are going village to village on foot with megaphones urging more people to flee.

One of the people I talked to is Kaiser Rejve. He's with the aid agency CARE. He's Bangladeshi. He is in Bangladesh. And he said, you know, for the past two months, people have been under lockdown because of the coronavirus. Authorities have been telling them to stay indoors. And now, all of a sudden, they're telling them to leave. And Rejve says people are confused and fearful.

KAISER REJVE: You know, the last two months, a lock down is in session. Poor people already hard hit. What about the small means of surviving they have in the home? They fear that it will be lost.

FRAYER: So he says people are worried about abandoning what little they have. Coastal fishermen are some of the poorest citizens. They've had no livelihood during the coronavirus lockdown. Also, some of the storm shelters they're being urged to go into, in some cases, are government buildings that had been used as COVID-19 quarantine centers. And the government has had to relocate patients out of them. And there are worries about infection in those facilities. Bangladesh actually aimed to evacuate 5 million people. Overnight, they managed only a little bit more than 2 million people. And so that has aid workers really worried.

KING: And it means that there will need to be an enormous disaster response. What are the biggest challenges there going to be?

FRAYER: Well, health systems are already stretched to the limit in this pandemic. India, for example, just announced a record number of new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours. India and Bangladesh both are still under lockdown. But there's pressure to open. I mean, poor day laborers are literally starving to death on the side of roads.

And on top of this, you have this storm approaching. You have people trying to social distance inside storm shelters. It's Ramadan. Bangladesh is a majority Muslim country. People are not eating or drinking during daylight hours. And now you've got a storm threatening to destroy their homes, and storm surge that threatens to break levees and even, you know, poison the fresh drinking water there.

KING: My goodness. NPR's Lauren Frayer. Thank you so much for keeping an eye on this, Lauren.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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