Why is China so worried about COVID? What does it mean to the U.S.?

The Morning Meeting with Al Tompkins is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas worth

The Morning Meeting with Al Tompkins is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas worth considering and other timely context for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

You have seen the protests against lockdowns in China that are so big that they threaten the supply lines of consumer goods around the world, once again. Is there anything in the COVID-19 infection data that should be sending a signal to the U.S.? Epidemiologist Dr. Katelyn Jetelina points out some key facts about what is happening in China that is different from the Western world.

COVID-19 seems to be on the verge of exploding in China. They are reporting record-high numbers—nearly 40,000 new infections per day. The biggest concern is China’s incomplete immunity wall when faced with infections:

• China does have a highly vaccinated population—about 90% are vaccinated with the primary series. This is higher than the United States. However, quality (not just quantity) of the vaccine is important. China rolled out Sinopharm and SinoVac—inactivated vaccines that are just not very effective against Omicron. 

• Their booster rate, and specifically who is boosted, is abysmal. Only 30% of 80+ year olds have one booster, for example. We have plenty of evidence showing the importance of boosters among the most vulnerable. 

• Infection-induced immunity is low. While preventing infections is the safest route, we have more than 30 studies showing hybrid immunity (vaccine + infection) builds a more complex immunity wall for the virus. 

The biggest reason that the rest of the world should be paying attention to what is unfolding in China, besides the protests and economic disruptions, is that if COVID-19 does what it did a couple of years ago and spreads beyond China, then we might not know it right away. Jetelina says, “global COVID-19 surveillance is down 90%. So if we do get a mutated virus, we won’t have a lot of warning. In fact, we don’t even know which Omicron subvariant is causing the current wave in China.” 

There are around 500 subvariants of the virus circulating now and it is changing all the time, looking for new hosts, and we do not know how well our vaccines will work to prevent whatever comes next. We know from experience that in a pandemic, whatever happens elsewhere may happen here. 

Diesel prices are still on a bit of a tear, hitting record highs compared to gasoline prices. Diesel prices are more than $1.60 a gallon higher than gasoline prices, which is an unusual price spread. Higher fuel prices inevitably make the cost of shipping more expensive and you eventually pay that cost. Farmers are also increasingly concerned about diesel prices.

If there is a national railroad strike next month, all bets would be off and a serious fuel shortage could result, shippers say. Yes, supplies are tight enough to keep prices high. But despite what Tucker Carlson and other knuckleheads are saying, the U.S. is not about to run out of diesel fuel. 

The rumor is founded on the U.S. government’s report that our supply of diesel is less than it usually is, but it is replenished constantly. But we are not, as Carlson reported, going to run out of the fuel that powers trucks and heavy equipment and other important parts of the economy. 

Carlson said a month ago that we might be out of diesel last week, but that didn’t happen. He falsely warned, “There will be no deliveries because there’ll be no trucks, there’ll be no diesel generators and then, invariably, our economy will crash because everything runs on diesel fuel,” Carlson said. “Not on solar panels, not on wind farms — on diesel fuel.”

PolitiFact reported:

A fuel expert and the Energy Information Administration told PolitiFact the data Carlson cited isn’t proof the country will run out of diesel. The data shows how much diesel fuel the U.S. has left if there were no more production. Carlson’s claim ignores that refineries are constantly producing more diesel and that the U.S. continues to import fuel. 

In short, reserves are lower than normal but not running dry. And, if the economy does slow down as some economists predict, trucking traffic will reflect that. Slower economies use less diesel fuel and the supplies would replenish, trucking industry analysts say. 

These holiday spending forecasts are confusing me. I read forecasts that say spending may be tight this year but still higher than last year, when Americans had stimulus money in their pockets. And still, the National Retail Federation expects an increase in holiday spending over 2021, and the first week of holiday shopping seems to be moving in that direction.

(National Retail Federation)

Other forecasters are not as optimistic. According to a study by Deloitte, holiday spending this year will be about the same as last year. 

The Wall Street Journal reports:

The University of Michigan estimated that household sentiment in the past six months is comparable to late 2008 and early 2009, when the financial system verged on economic disaster and unemployment was soaring. The index also echoes wary levels of the 1970s, when inflation climbed to double digits.

A Census Bureau survey of households in early October found that 41% of Americans, around 95 million people, said they were having difficulty paying for essential household expenses, compared with 29% a year earlier.

People plan to buy an average of nine gifts this year compared with 16 last year, according to Deloitte consulting’s 37th annual holiday shopping survey of 5,000 respondents in September. Total anticipated spending per household was $1,455, down from $1,463 a year ago, Deloitte said. People in the survey said they also planned to spend less time shopping than they did last year.

(Wall Street Journal)

But the Journal points out that people sometimes talk a more conservative spending plan than they live out when the Christmas bells start ringing. 

The National Retail Federation produced a couple of charts that I found surprising.

(National Retail Federation)

Would you have guessed that back-to-college spending and back to school spending would rival holiday spending? I see how this might be the case if you bought your kid a car or something, but how much does a set of sheets and a dorm refrigerator cost? Maybe I “went cheap” on my kid’s college spending. And Easter spending rivals Mother’s Day? I had no idea.

(National Retail Federation)

Bankrate provides these sobering statistics:

• 65% of holiday shoppers don’t plan to have money set aside or budgeted for upcoming holiday shopping.

• 27% of holiday shoppers expect to take on debt for holiday purchases.

• 44% of holiday shoppers who make under $40,000 a year say inflation will change how they shop.

• Among those planning overnight leisure trips between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, 24% plan on taking fewer trips.

• Among those planning overnight leisure trips between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, 25% plan on selecting less expensive accommodations and/or destinations.

• Among those planning overnight leisure trips between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, 25% plan on engaging in cheaper activities.

• 41% of Americans feel generally unprepared ahead of an oncoming recession.