Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The pandemic is striking directly at the heart of what has historically made America stronger than almost any other global economy — our awesome productivity.

Why it matters: Modern recessions, even the Great Recession of 2008-9, have tended to have little to no effect on how efficiently America produces goods and services. This recession is different. COVID-19 has hammered the potency of our companies and workers.

How it works: COVID-19 has deeply changed the way the country works.

  • Working from home has damaged companies that invested in sparking creativity and innovation by bringing employees together in thoughtfully-designed offices.
  • Teachers worry more about distancing and ventilation than they do about education.
  • In nursing homes, aides now have one job — preventing the spread of the virus — that has a higher priority than everything else.
  • In travel, the basic economics of whole industries have been upended. It takes just as many pilots to fly a socially-distanced plane, for instance, as it does to fly a full one.

Show me a business that involves individuals entering a building, and I'll show you a business where leaders are being urged to put significant new resources towards social distancing, ventilation, temperature checks, health attestations, contact-tracing databases, ubiquitous hand sanitizer stations, and myriad other COVID-related expenses.

  • While employers are forced to spend time and money on such projects, employees are also being hit hard. Many are struggling with suicidal thoughts, while Wall Street executives talk about having to deal with "rolling nervous breakdowns.”
  • "People are living at work," says Abby Levine, a principal in Deloitte's real estate group. "That has a physical, emotional, and mental impact."

By the numbers: The recession is bad enough — deeper and faster than anything we've experienced in living memory. The hit to productivity comes on top of that.

  • Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom sees productivity declines within firms of between 5% and 10%. "These falls are not surprising," he says, "but are absolutely massive."
  • For some service-industry sectors, the decline in productivity means thousands of businesses have to shut down entirely, since they can no longer make a profit. Restaurants are a prime example.

The bottom line: So long as COVID-19 continues to spread at a rate of more than 50,000 new cases per day, the virus will continue to act as a deadweight on the economy, depressing productivity — and total economic output — to well below pre-crisis levels.

Go deeper

Erica Pandey, author of @Work
Sep 15, 2020 - Economy & Business

Working from (your parents') home

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Nearly 30 million Americans are spending their 20s in the same place they spent their grade school years: at home with their parents.

The big picture: For the first time since the Great Depression, the majority of 18- to 29-year-olds have moved back home. Those living arrangements can come with a great deal of awkwardness and pain, but families across America are making the most of it.

Bob Woodward: "I was not going to hide" my opinion on Trump

Bob Woodward didn't want to join Senate Republicans in privately condemning President Trump but declining to do so publicly, he told Jonathan Swan in an interview for "Axios on HBO."

Why it matters: Woodward has covered 9 presidents, but Trump is the first that Woodward explicitly described as "the wrong man for the job."

Watch the full Jonathan Swan interview with Bob Woodward

In the latest episode of "Axios on HBO," Jonathan Swan interviews Bob Woodward about his new book, "Rage," which was based on 19 interviews with President Trump.