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The News Fix

About 10 million people have filed new claims for unemployment benefits over the past two weeks, and demand for food stamps is surging. COVID-19 is placing unprecedented strain on the nation’s social safety net — and exposing its weaknesses.

The social safety net is a blanket term that encompasses public services from cash assistance to health care, education, housing and legal aid. The ongoing debate over how much federal, state and local governments should fund such programs has come to the fore during the pandemic. The government has taken unprecedented action to help Americans during the crisis, passing a $2 trillion economic rescue package of support measures.

But this week the White House said health care exchanges won’t reopen to allow people to purchase insurance during the outbreak. And thousands of community health care clinics could be forced to close due to declining donations, uncertain federal funding and staff shortages. All over the country, cities are scrambling to respond to a flood of people seeking services — many for the first time. (This dispatch from our contributor in New Orleans provides one hyperlocal example.)

It seems certain that this crisis will fundamentally change how lawmakers think about, and fund, the social safety net in the post-COVID-19 economy. As this piece about the response to past public health crises put it, “the effects of epidemics extend beyond the moments in which they occur.” 

Navy Hospital Ship USNS Comfort docks at Pier 90 on the Hudson River on March 30.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Smart In a Shot

The U.S. Navy in recent days sent two massive hospital ships to provide backup health care services to the New York City and Los Angeles regions. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the ships are treating patients who do not have coronavirus but who urgently need other care. The USNS Mercy docked at the Port of Los Angeles last Friday and began treating patients this week. The USNS Comfort arrived in New York Harbor Monday.

Converted former oil tankers, the ships are each 894 feet long — the length of about three football fields — and 10 stories high. They’re staffed by 1,200 medical personnel and accommodate 1,000 beds for patients — roughly the same as a big hospital — as well as 12 operating rooms, an intensive-care unit and other resources.

For decades, the Navy’s hospital ships have provided military assistance and disaster relief: Both ships were deployed during Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom; and Comfort helped out after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Maria in 2017.

The Numbers

The 2020 Summer Olympics were postponed as world leaders deal with the task at hand. Other major sports events are also being called off. 

July 23, 2021

That’s the new date set for the Olympic Games in Tokyo. More than 10,000 athletes who were expecting to compete this year will now have to rework their training plans to be in peak shape for next year. The Paralympic Games, which were scheduled to kick off Aug. 25, will begin Aug. 24, 2021. 

$1.4 billion

That’s how much the city of Tokyo spent to overhaul its National Stadium, making it the centerpiece of the 2020 Olympics. Japan expected approximately 2 million tourists to fly in for the event — a number that could be smaller when the rescheduled games go on next year, given the economic outlook and ongoing health concerns. 

$12 billion

That’s how much NBCUniversal committed, back in 2014, to extend its broadcasting partnership with the International Olympic Committee through 2032. And while NBC is insured and won’t incur major losses from the postponement of the 2020 Games, the network stands to lose substantial profits this year. 


By contrast, Wimbledon was canceled entirely. The tournament will skip a year and hold its 134th contest in 2021 instead. This year’s French Open, another of pro tennis’ Grand Slam tournaments, will take place in September. 

This week on the podcast

President Donald Trump signs the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill last week in the Oval Office.
Erin Schaff/Getty Images

Episode 161: So, when are we getting that $1,200 check?

Just don't expect it to line up with April rent. (Listening time, 34:15)


None of us is as smart as all of us

Tell us what’s making you smarter at We'd love to include your recommendation in a future newsletter.

Tips on the CARES Act from a caring listener

Listener Liz P., a financial planner, wrote in after this week’s podcast to offer reassurance to small businesses and self-employed people looking for relief under the new stimulus plan. Applying for grants of up to $10,000 through the Small Business Administration is “simple, completely online and should only take about 15 minutes,” she wrote, adding, “although it says 2 hours, most of our clients have said it's faster than that.” Liz said applicants should check out Page 7 of this guide for more details.


The legal landscape during a pandemic

“Marketplace” reporter (and sometimes-co-host of “Make Me Smart”) Kimberly Adams recommends this guide to state and federal laws related to COVID-19, compiled by UCLA Law librarian Lynn McClelland. The guide includes everything from details on recent federal legislation to “summaries of longstanding state laws governing issues including quarantine, election emergencies and price gouging.” 


Christmas (for content) comes early

The “Make Me Smart” team would like to direct listeners and readers to all the fresh new content coming out ahead of schedule on various streaming services. From the early return of Season 3 of BBC America’s “Killing Eve” to the moved-up premiere date of ESPN’s docuseries on the Chicago Bulls and a bunch of new movies, April should deliver some excellent content.
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