Five things you should know today
1) A conversation with Professor Daniel Colón-Ramos
Deepak Lamba-Nieves, PhD, Research Director, and Daniel Colón-Ramos, PhD, Professor at Yale University
In this new conversation from the series Living with Risk, we are joined by Professor Daniel Colón-Ramos. Professor Colón-Ramos is a Puerto Rican neuroscientist who works at Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut. He is also a founding member of CienciaPR, a global network of scientists with links to the island. Most recently, he joined one of CNE’s Growth Commission Working Groups, where he advises us on topics related to health and science. Daniel has been very vocal about the importance of conducting tests and employing scientific knowledge as we battle the coronavirus. Our conversation is part of a series of dialogues we have had with members of CienciaPR and the Puerto Rico Science and Technology Trust, to gather insights and explore possible collaborations.
The conversation was conducted in Spanish.
2) A CDBG-DR funds update
Analysis by Malu Blázquez, Executive Director of ReImagina Puerto Rico
More than two and half years have passed since Hurricane María devastated Puerto Rico. Since then we have also been struck by a series of earthquakes in the south of the island, as well as the current pandemic. Yet Puerto Rico is still anxiously awaiting the disbursement of federal funds appropriated by Congress for its long-term reconstruction and recovery.
Last week, high-level officials from the PR Department of Housing (PRDOH) provided updated information regarding plans, actions, and funding related to the CBDG-DR program through a series of webinars hosted by various non-profit organizations. One issue clarified by PRDOH is that the $20.2 billion in CDBG-DR funds assigned to Puerto Rico can only be used towards damage caused by Hurricanes Irma and María. Those funds cannot be used for projects to repair or mitigate damages caused by the earthquakes or the pandemic. PRDOH filed a petition with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to have greater flexibility in the use of these funds, but federal regulations do not allow it.
While Puerto Rico was allocated $20.2 billion in CDBG-DR funds after Hurricane María, up until January 2020 the PRDOH had only received the first tranche of funds ($1.5 billion). A significant portion of those funds has been used for the R3 (Repair, Reconstruction & Relocation) housing program, which only began operating in August 2019 and was scheduled to start actual repairs and reconstruction of some 50 residences this past February.
For the second tranche of $8.2 billion funds, it took HUD one year to process a grant agreement with the Puerto Rico government (with additional restrictions), notwithstanding that the action plan for the use of those funds had already been approved. The Grant Agreement was executed in February 2020, but HUD has only disbursed $1.7 billion of the total for the time being.
In addition, PRDOH is working on preparing an action plan for $8.3 billion of mitigation funds in response to HUD guidelines published on January 27, 2020. PRDOH is scheduled to submit a draft MIT Action Plan for a 45-day comment period in early September 2020 and final submission to HUD in early December 2020. HUD, however, has not yet published the federal register notice for $1.9 billion for the power grid, funds that Puerto Rico desperately needs to initiate the modernization of its electrical infrastructure grid.
3) Pandemic relief programs have a bumpy start
Lawmakers are beginning to worry about the glitches that have affected the rollout of several pandemic relief programs. According to Politico, hospitals are reporting problems accessing relief funds; several states, including Florida, have been unable to disburse higher unemployment benefits; and several jurisdictions complain about competing with the federal government for life-saving personal protection equipment.
Meanwhile, millions of Americans are trying to figure out what happened to their $1,200 stimulus payments. And airline executives claim to be “stunned” to learn that some “grants” have actually turned out to be loans: “we believe the law indicated that the Direct Payroll Assistance funding was to be only in grants — which is considerably more effective for our employees — and not a combination of grants and loans”. While a healthcare consultant claimed he was “utterly perplexed trying to figure out what the hell this formula is and how it’s going to work”, in reference to assistance for hospitals.
To be fair, a lot of these problems were foreseeable. The CARES Act was a massive bill enacted over a few days in the middle of a once-in-a-century emergency. Nonetheless, both Democrats and Republicans would do well to be concerned as voters will be asking tough questions come November. In the words of Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.): “our constituents have a lot of questions about where the hell this $3 trillion is going and why it isn’t coming into their pockets”.
4) Will the pandemic permanently change our lives?
Many people are asking the question about what permanent effects, if any, will this pandemic have in our lives. Some analysts claim the changes will be minimal, others look to history and find that events of this magnitude tend to produce profound social, economic, and political changes. Here is an argument of the latter variety by Gerald Seib and John McCormick writing in the Wall Street Journal. The authors believe that “much of today’s new government activism will recede over time along with the virus. Yet conversations with a broad cross-section of political figures suggest there is little reason to expect a return to what had been the status quo on federal spending, or the prevailing attitude toward the proper role of government.”
These opinions seem to have the support of the general American public. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, voters of both political parties said by a 2-to-1 margin that they approved of the expansion of the government’s role in the economy to meet the crisis.
But even beyond the immediate crisis, some conservatives believe the era of big government is back to stay. For example, “Oren Cass, who leads American Compass, a new organization devoted to revising conservative views on economic policy, argued that ‘one lesson we can and should learn from all this is that you can’t just flip a switch on strong, effective government when you need it. Just as you can’t get rid of the Defense Department in times of peace and then reconstitute it from scratch when attacked, you can’t push for the smallest possible government in normal times and expect to be ready with a competent response in an emergency’.” This is particularly true in the field of public health, as this pandemic has made painfully clear for all to see and none to misunderstand.
5) A tale of two hospitals
Unfortunately, some things, like unequal access to healthcare due to class, race, and ethnic inequalities will probably stay the same. This piece in The New York Times tells the tale of two hospitals. One, the University Hospital of Brooklyn, at the heart of the epicenter of a worldwide pandemic, “is falling apart. The roof leaks. The corroded pipes burst with alarming frequency. On one of the intensive care units, plastic tarps and duct tape serve as flimsy barriers separating patients. Nurses record vital signs with pen and paper, rather than computer systems.”
Meanwhile, not too far away “wealthy private hospitals, primarily in Manhattan, have been able to marshal reserves of cash and political clout to increase patient capacity quickly, ramp up testing and acquire protective gear. At the height of the surge, the Mount Sinai health system was able to enlist private planes from Warren E. Buffett’s company to fly in coveted N95 masks from China.” University Hospital, which is publicly-funded, had to start a GoFundMe page to obtain funding for personal protective equipment. Such are the vagaries of life and death in the world’s richest city.
Quote of the Day
“Politics is not an exact science.”
—Otto von Bismarck
This is the end of today’s briefing.
Stay safe and well informed!