The coronavirus pandemic – being unprepared

The US public health system was unprepared to deal with the coronavirus that came to the United States in January 2020. The policies of the Trump administration made the problem worse than it might otherwise have been. Eventually, the spreading contagion forced the White House to take belated action, though as of March 25, 2020, there are still serious shortages of vital medical resources across the nation. And this is true even though we are still in the early stages of what has been defined as a pandemic. To protect people from infection, large parts of the economy have been shut down, millions of people are without employment or money, and there are fears that the country is headed toward one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression of the 1930s. While the Congress and the President have passed legislation to address some of the financial problems, there is still not enough scientific evidence to predict when we will reach the downslope on the curve. All of this is taking place in economic, political, and social contexts that have generated vast inequalities, unprecedented levels of corporate concentration, a money-driven, corrupted political system.

(A note on terminology. I have used the term “coronavirus” to refer to the current pandemic. It is a term widely used in the media and by many officials. The term actually refers to a family of viruses, not to a particular virus. Lindsay Holmes clarifies the terminology in an article published at The Huff Post. She writes that the term “coronavirus” refers to “a handful of diseases” that cause respiratory problems. It is not the name of a particular disease. Rather, COVID-19 is the correct reference to the current and a novel form of coronavirus (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/difference-between-coronavirus-covid-19_l_5e6be1c4c5b6dda30fc8cb30).)

The viruses are there waiting for the right conditions to attack humans

Human beings have had to endure periodic outbreaks of deadly pandemics for centuries, perhaps all human history. A pandemic, as defined in Sonia Shaw’s book, Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Eobola and Beyond (published in 2016), is “an infectious disease that spreads out of a particular locality to infect populations across regions or continents.” Unable to prevent them, societies have typically been ill-equipped to “mitigate” the rise in illness and deaths that follow from an outbreak.

Lethal viruses have always existed, often living in animal hosts like bats. Shaw points out in an article published in The Nation magazine (February 18, 2020): “Since 1940, hundreds of microbial pathogens have either emerged or reemerged into new territory where they’ve never been seen before,” including “HIV, Ebola in West Africa, Zika in the Americas, and a bevy of novel coronaviruses.” She continues: “The majority of them – 60 percent – originate in the bodies of animal. Some come from pets and livestock. Most of them – more than two-thirds – originate in wildlife” (https://www.thenation.com/article/environment/coronavirus-habitate-loss).

Shaw writes in her book Pandemic: “The disease-causing microbe, or pathogen, that will cause the world’s next pandemic lurks among us today.” They occur frequently. “Besides HIV, there was the West Nile virus, SARS, Ebola, and new kinds of avian flu…. drug-resistant tuberculosis, resurgent malaria, and cholera itself.” Indeed, when it’s all totaled, “between 1940 and 2004, more than three hundred infectious diseases either newly emerged or reemerged in places and in population that had never seen them before.” She notes that the notion that “developed societies” had eliminated them was “greatly exaggerated.” In the US between 1980 and 2000, “the number of deaths pathogens caused in the United States alone rose nearly 60 percent. Many of these deaths were from HIV. But the threat is wider than HIV and the potential impact is frighteningly large. Shaw cites a survey carried out by epidemiologist Larry Brilliant that found, as reported in a TED Talk in February 2006, “90 percent of epidemiologists said that a pandemic that will sicken 1 billion, kill up to 165 million, and trigger a global recession that could cost up to $3 trillion would occur sometime in the next two generations” (pp. 7-8). Shaw gives this example from 2009, that is, “a new kind of influenza virus, called H1N1 emerged and ended up killing “more than a half million…around the world” – including more than twelve thousand in the United States.” We may now be amidst such a pandemic. At the same time, there is ongoing research being done to identify and develop vaccines to squelch potentially deadly pathogens. As Show notes, scientists funded by USAID’s Predict program have undertook such efforts. They have “pinpointed more than 900 novel viruses around the world.”  But there is no vaccine yet for the current coronavirus sweeping the US – and the world.

Despite the sophistication of the science and the advances of contemporary medical practices and remedies, the conditions for pandemics are increasing while the anticipated responses are not. Shaw emphasizes how the habitats of wild animals that carry lethal viruses are being destroyed by deforestation and other destructive activities of extractive businesses (e.g., deforestation, fossil fuel operations, the mining of all sorts of minerals) along with the enormous and steady growth of the human population. All this is leading to increasing contact between wild animals that carry viruses and humans. On this point, she writes in The Nation article: “Habitat destruction threatens vast numbers of wild species with extinction, including the medicinal plants and animals we’ve historically depended upon for our pharmacopeia. It also forces those wild species that hang on to cram into smaller fragments of remaining habitat, increasing the likelihood that they’ll come into repeated, intimate contact with the human settlements expanding into their newly fragmented habitats. It’s this kind of repeated, intimate contact that allows the microbes that live in their bodies to cross over into ours, transforming benign animal microbes into deadly human pathogens.” She gives the following examples.

“To sate our species’ carnivorous appetites, we’ve razed an area around the size of Africa to raise animals for slaughter…[and] some of these animals are then delivered through the illicit wildlife trade or sold in so-called ‘wet markets.’ There, wild species that would rarely if ever encounter each other I nature are caged next to one another, allowing microbes to jump from one species to the next, a process that begot the coronavirus that caused the 2002-03 SARS epidemic and possibly the novel coronavirus stalking us today.” Additionally, many more animals are being reared in factory farms, “where hundreds of thousands of individuals await slaughter, packed closely together, providing microbes lush opportunities to turn into deadly pathogens. Shaw gives the following example.

“Avian influenza viruses…which originate in the bodies of wild waterfowl, rampage in factory farms packed with captive chickens, mutating and becoming more virulent, a process so reliable it can be replicated in the laboratory. One strain, H1N1, which can infect humans, kills more than half of those infected. Containing another strain, which reached North America in 2014, required the slaughter of tens of millions of poultry.”

“We Were Warned”

 This is the title of an article written by Uri Friedman for The Atlantic magazine on March 18, 2020 (https://www.theatlantic.com/archive/2020/03/pandemic-coronavirus-united-states-trump-cdc/608215). Friedman identifies the “signs” that a pandemic was likely to occur prior to the actual outbreak of the coronavirus. In 2012, “the Rand Corporation surveyed the international threats against the United States and concluded that only pandemics of all major threats posed an existential danger, in that they were ‘capable of destroying America’s way of life.’” Then there was a warning in 2015, “when Ezra Klein of Vox, after speaking with Bill Gates about his algorithmic model for how a new strain of flu could spread rapidly in today’s globalized world, wrote that ‘a pandemic disease is the most predictable catastrophe in history of the human race, if only because it has happened to the human race so many, many times before.”  While all this is true, there are other such threats to humanity, namely, nuclear war, the unfolding and accelerating climate crisis, and the ability of human activity to destroy the protective ozone layer in the higher atmosphere.

Back to the “warnings.” In 2017, a week before Trump’s inauguration day, “Lisa Monaco, Barack Obama’s outgoing homeland-security adviser, gathered with Donald Trump’s incoming national-security officials and conducted an exercise modeled on the administration’s experiences with outbreaks of swine flu, Ebola, and Zika. Continuing: “The simulation explored how the U.S. government should respond to a flu pandemic that halts international travel, upends global supply chains, tanks the stock market, and burdens health-care systems – all with a vaccine many months from materializing.”

On the 100th anniversary of the flu pandemic of 1918, “which killed 50 to 100 million people around the world, Luciana Borio, then the director for medical and biodefense preparedness at the National Security Council, told a symposium that ‘the threat of pandemic flu is our number-one health security concern.” She noted as well it could not “be stopped at the border.” The very next day, the Trump-appointed National Security Adviser John Bolton “shuttered the NSC’s unit for preparing and responding to pandemics, of which Borio was a part.”

There were other “warnings” in 2018 and 2019, “when the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security gathered public-health experts, business leaders, and U.S. government officials for simulations of the devastating humanitarian, political, social, and economic consequences of fictional novel coronaviruses that left tens of millions dead around the world. Then, it happened. “Two months after the second simulation, a novel coronavirus…emerged in China.” The U.S. intelligence community had warned in assessments from 2013 to 2019 about “the grave hazards of a new influenza pandemic, that it was not hypothetical, and that history was “replete with examples of pathogens sweeping populations that lack immunity, causing political and economic upheaval.”

Despite these warnings, neither the society nor the Trump administration was prepared for the virus SARS-Co V-2. However, it was not an unforeseen problem and it the serious preparation required had not been forthcoming.

Unprepared as a society

In an article published in The New York Times on March 19, 2020, journalists David E. Sanger, Eric Lipton, Eileen Sullivan and Michael Crowley report on federal-funded research by the Department of Health and Human Services focusing on a program code-named “Crimson Contagion” and other preparations by the federal government (https://nytimes.com/2020/03/20/us/politics/trump-coronavirus-outbreak.html). The Crimson Contagion program, which ran from January to August of 2019, simulated an imagined influenza pandemic, and reported in October how unprepared the US was in its preparation to deal with such an event. Officials “at the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, and even at the White House’s National Security Council, were aware of the potential for a respiratory virus outbreak originating in China” and spreading to the United States. They identified “in stark detail repeated cases of ‘confusion’ in the exercise,” including, for example, how “[s]tate officials and hospitals struggled to figure out what kind of equipment was stockpiled or available. Cities and stats went their own ways on school closings.” The planning exercise “involved officials from 12 states and at least a dozen federal agencies.”

The exercise revealed many problems. While during the exercise the CDC “issued guidelines for social distancing, and many employees were told to work from home,” “federal and state officials struggled to identify which employees were essential and what equipment was needed to effectively work at home.” There was “confusion over how to handle school children,” over among state governments over how Washington would help “address shortages of antiviral medications, personal protective equipment and ventilators. And there was a realization that the US economy “did not have the means to quickly manufacture more essential medical equipment, supplies or medicines, including antiviral medications, needles, syringes. N95 respirators and ventilators…”  These findings did not later influence Trump’s appointees in the relevant federal agencies. Even before the exercise was undertaken, in 2018, Mr. Trump’s national security at the time, John R. Bolton, eliminated the National Security Council Directorate,” which, as mentioned earlier, had been established to coordinate federal government planning for infectious diseases. In Testimony to Congress in early March 2020, “Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, suggested that ending the stand-alone directorate was ill-advised.”

The systemic obstacles to the government’s ability to manage pandemics

 The absence of a public healthcare system

 Robert Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, secretary of labor in the first Clinton administration, makes the argument that the system would be failing even if there was a competent president because “there is no real public health system in the United States” (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/03/17/coronavirus-outbreak-proves-there-is-no-public-health-system-us).

He writes: “Instead of a public health system, we have a private for-profit system for individuals lucky enough to afford it and rickety social insurance system for people fortunate enough to have a full-time job.” There is no central coordinating government entity to ensure that the current system has the reserve capacity to deliver necessary resources to state and local healthcare organizations in a crisis or the ability to deliver, out of necessity, health care to tens of millions of Americans free of charge. He points out that “[l]ocal and state health departments are already barebones, having lost nearly a quarter of their workforce since 2008, according to the National Association of County and City Health Officials.” There are other systemic deficiencies. As mentioned, the present system is not required to maintain a reserve capacity of resources necessary for such emergencies. Thus, “the nation’s supply of ventilators isn’t nearly large enough to care for projected numbers of critically ill coronavirus victims unable to breathe for themselves.” With an expected need of up to 2.9 million intensive care unit beds, there are only 45,000 now available.

In an interview on the only program Democracy Now, Dr. Steven Goodman gave additional information on the availability of all hospital beds. He said: “I think we have on the order of a million beds. And the actual number that are available on any on day is about of a third of that. The number of ICU beds is a fraction of that….So, we are not geared up as a society with the surge capacity to handle the number of COVID patients that we would get if we didn’t do anything” (https://www.democracynow.org/2020/03/13/us_coronoavirus_response). Government officials and hospitals in some states are now scrambling to fill the gaps.

While the system has been woefully unprepared on the healthcare resources side, it has also unprepared to deal with the dislocations and suffering of vast swaths of the American population caused by the pandemic. In summarizing the dire situation, Reich points out: “Almost 30% of American workers have no paid sick leave from their employers, including 70% of low-income workers earning less than $10.49 an hour. Vast numbers of self-employed workers cannot afford sick leave.” “Most jobless Americans don’t qualify for unemployment insurance because they haven’t worked long enough in a steady job…. Meanwhile, more than 30 million Americans have no health insurance.” Continuing: “It’s hard to close public schools because most working parents cannot afford childcare. Many children rely on school lunches for their one square meal a day. In Los Angeles, about 80% of students qualify for free or reduced lunches and just under 20,000 are homeless at some point during the school year.” The ad hoc and belated remedies currently being considered in the US Congress and by the White House won’t fill the void.

Years of austerity at all levels of government, combined with profiteering, in the health care sector

This is Mike Ludwig’s thesis, plus he adds: “the Trump administration’s bungled response.” All this “severely weakened the nation’s ability to combat the coronavirus outbreak and…putting public health workers on the front lines of the crisis in danger” (https://truthout.org/articles/years-of-austerity-weakened-the-public-health-response-to-coronavirus). In an interview with David Himmelstein, M.D., a professor of public health at the City University of New York at Hunter College, Himmelstein says that “public health departments nationwide have eliminated 50,000 positions since 2008.” The employees of public health departments “are the folks who actually go out and when someone is sick with an infectious disease…they track down the people who might be exposed and treat them in the case of treatable things like STDS or hepatitis,  or isolate them in the case of COVID-19.” According to the Trust for America’s Health, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group, 31 states made cuts from to their public health budgets between 2015 and 2017, “often because conservatives controlled their legislatures.” At the same time, “the CDC’s core budget…remained relatively flat for the last decade after steadily increasing from 1990 to 2010.” The Affordable Care Act “attempted to boost federal health spending at the local level through the section of the law known as the Prevention and Public Health Fund, but the fund has received nearly $12 billion less than the law intended by 2007.” To top it off, according to Himmelstein, spending on health care is very unequal, depending on incomes and color. He told Ludwig that “hospitals serving wealthier parts of the country may have plenty of ventilators and intensive care units for treating COVID-19 patients, while others are scrambling to respond with limited resources and protective equipment for staff.”

A drastic shortage of testing for coronavirus has hampered mitigation efforts

In its response to the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) emphasizes “social distancing” to curtail the spread of the disease and the need for a country to do widespread testing to identify the people who are infected. The New York Times Editorial Board writes that “[E]very region that has managed to get a coronavirus outbreak under control has succeeded thanks to a combination of social distancing and aggressive efforts to test as many people as possible.” So, at least on testing, “South Korea…has tested some 274,000 people since February,” while the “United States has tested just 82,000, the vast majority of them in the past few weeks” (https://nytimes.com/2020/02/19/opinion/covonavirus-testing.html). Adhanom Ghebreyesus Tedros, head of the WHO, says that “[e]pidemiological testing – where the contacts of infected people are identified, tested in turn and isolated as needed – is the only way to fully break the chains of transmissions” The editors tells us what has become well known that, until recently, “American officials have not absorbed that lesson.” For example, “Almost no efforts are underway to develop the infrastructure for quarantining the exposed or isolating the infected outside their homes, away from their families. In some places, as the case counts surge, doctors who think they’ve been exposed are being advised to keep on working.” Worst of all, the editors write, testing “has been disastrously slow to come online in the United States.”  The editors expand on the consequences.

“With coronavirus outbreaks in the states of New York and Washington stretching into their second months, some experts have all but given up on testing, saying that the virus has probably spread well beyond our ability to contain it. Based on that logic, people who are known to have been exposed are being advised to isolate themselves at home but are not being tested to determine whether they pose a risk to roommates or relatives, nor are they being monitored for symptoms in any consistent or meaningful way. It also means those who have immunities can’t know it, and thus can’t know they are in a position to safely help those who are high risk.”

In an article for Common Dreams on March 19, 2020, staff writer Jessica Corbett cites sources that confirm the national shortage of COVID-19 laboratory testing materials. She quotes from an interview CNN did with Scott Becker, CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. Becker told Corbett: “I’m really concerned that we are not going to have the capabilities to test those who really need and should get the test.” Corbett refers to other evidence, citing how “medical officials at several state health departments, hospitals and labs have told CNN they need more testing swabs, reagents, pipettes, and other material need to conduct the COVID-1 tests.” There are also reports about such shortages from the Minnesota Department of Health, Utah officials who are reserving tests for “the most at-risk populations,” the San Francisco hospital system, and other hospitals around the country. Dr. Ulrike Sujansky of San Mateo, California, told the New York Times that “she has only been able to test a few patients in her hard hit area because of a supply problem, such as swab kits [that] have arrived late or haven’t been the right type.” Also, Sujansky said she “lacks standard protective gear, like face masks.” Then at major hospitals in Seattle and Washington, D.C., “mask shortages had already become so acute that doctors and patients were being asked to reuse the masks, not dispose of them as previous, traditional CDC protocol requires.” According to Wikipedia, fewer than 14,000 tests had been carried out by March 13 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_coronavirus_pandemic_in_the_United_States).

Doctors treating coronavirus patients don’t have the protective equipment they need

In an article published in the New York Times, Andrew Jacobs, Matt Richtel and Mike Baker report, as many others have, on the dire shortage of protective gear for doctors (https://nytimes.com.2020/03/19/health/cornoavirus-masks-shortages.html). They open their article with an example of how the Open Cities Community Health Center in St. Paul, Minn., “is considering shutting down because it doesn’t have enough face masks.” This follows with examples with the same problems at Doctor at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis and emergency room doctors in Los Angeles, anesthesiologist interviewed in central Kentucky, administrators at the Memorial Sloan Kettering in Manhattan, the Providence St. Joseph hospital chain based in Washington [state], emergency room doctors in New Jersey, and a surgeon in Fresno, California. They point out as well that while respirator masks can be used for eight hours of continuous and intermittent use, many doctors “around the country said they are being given just one, to use indefinitely, and they spray it down with Lysol or wipe it off, now knowing whether that will preserve it.

The NYT journalists cite Howard K. Mell, a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians, who says the crisis requires decisive federal action. Mell urged “the White House to ramp up production of medical gear through the Defense Production Act powers, and he called on federal authorities to increase distributions from the Strategic National Stockpile, a repository of critical medical supplies for public health emergencies.” According to this source, the “stockpile has roughly 12 million N95 masks and 30 million surgical masks,” though the “country would need 3.5 billion masks in the vent of a pandemic lasting a year.” There is fear in this medical community that the prospects for adequate and speedy government intervention is limited.

Even if a person is found to have the virus, she/he may not be able to afford the necessary treatment. See the following article by Abigal Abrams, “Total Cost of COVID-19 Treatment: $34,927.43,” published in Time magazine on March 20 (https://time.com/5806312/coronavirus-treatment-cost).

For weeks, Trump fueled confusion and doubt about the reality of the coronavirus outbreak and spread

 In the article by Uri Friedman cited previously, he offers evidence that funding for pandemic preparedness has “long lagged behind other homeland-security priorities.” His example is that, according to one 2016 calculation, “the U.S. government…spends at least $100 billion on counterterrorism efforts versus $1 billion on pandemic and emerging-infectious-disease programs.” He goes on to write that the Trump administration not only underfunded such efforts “but also proposed steep spending cuts year-after-year to institutions, such as, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that are tasked with handling outbreaks.” Congress resisted the efforts of the Trump administration, but the proposed cuts nonetheless reveal the president’s low priority for pandemic preparedness.

Katie Rogers, White House correspondent for The NewYork Times is one among many journalists who document Trump’s  confusing and misinformed responses to the reality and significance of the coronavirus (https://nytimes.com/2020/03/17/us/politics/trump-coronavirus.html).

Rogers writes: “For weeks, President Trump has minimized the coronavirus, mocked concern about it and treated the risk from it cavalierly.” He changed his tune on Tuesday, March 17. However, this was only after confusing and delaying a meaningful government response to what was becoming an out-of-control outbreak.

Rogers identifies five occasions where the president downplayed the issue. On January 22, two days after the first person in the US was identified as having the virus. He was “asked by a CNBC reporter whether there were ‘worries about a pandemic.” The President’s reply: “No, not at all. We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be fine.” On February 16, “at a White House news conference, commenting on the country’s first reported cases: ‘We’re going to be pretty soon be at only five people. And we could be at just one or two people over the next short period of time. So, we’ve had very good luck.”

Then at a White House meeting on February 27, he said: “It’s going to disappear. One day – it’s like a miracle – it will disappear.” On March 7, while the president stood next to President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil at Mar-a-Lago and was asked “if he was concerned that the virus was spreading closer to Washington, he responded: ‘No, I’m not concerned at all. No, I’m not. NO, we’ve done a great job.” Her final example: On March 16 in the White House briefing room, the president said that outbreak would “wash” away this summer: “So it could be right in that period of time where it, I say, wash – it washes through. Other people don’t like that term. But where it washes through.”

The confusion generated by Trump’s statements – until recently – go beyond just minimizing the harm. Rogers reports he has mocked those who expressed concern. At a campaign rally in South Carolina on February 28, “Mr. Trump accused Democrats and the news media of hysteria and unfairly criticizing his administration by engaging in what he said was a political ‘hoax.’” He has propounded inaccurate information. “At a campaign rally on February 10, Mr. Trump suggested that the virus would be gone by April, a claim he has frequently repeated, even though his advisers had warned him that much about the virus was still not known.” He has misled the American people about the unpreparedness of the healthcare system. On March 6, during a tour of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, he said: “They’re there [the tests]. They have the tests and they are beautiful.” He has conveyed the bizarre idea that he has a deep knowledge of the science. During the visit to the CDE on March 6, “Mr. Trump praised his own ‘natural ability to grasp scientific theories.”

Other coverage of Trump’s  responses to the coronavirus from January 24 through mid-March

 David Leonhardt, opinion columnist for The New York Times, assembled “a complete list of Trump’s to play down Coronavirus” in an article with that name (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/15/opinion/trump-coronavirus.html). He identifies these statements, beginning on January 24 through mid-March, including his remarks at press conferences, his statements at rallies, interviews on Fox News programs, and his prolific twitter account. During this period, the number of coronavirus cases in the US continued rising, as it continues doing. The following paragraph from the article sums up Leonhardt’s findings.

“I’ve reviewed all of his public statements and actions on coronavirus over the last two months, and they show a president who put almost no priority on public health. Trump’s priorities were different. Making the virus sound like a minor nuisance. Exaggerating his administration’s response. Blaming foreigners and, anachronistically, the Obama administration. Claiming incorrectly that the situation was improving. Trying to cheer up stock market investors.”

Katelyn Burns identified “Trump’s 7 worst statements on the coronavirus outbreak” in an article for Vox (https://vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/3/13/211776535/trumps-worst-statements-coronavirus). She is particularly concerned about Trump’s tendency “to outright contradict the facts and statements of the government’s top infectious disease experts.” On March 4, Trump told Fox viewers that the death rate [associated with the virus] was a “fraction of 1 percent.” Here’s the full quote in all of its eloquence: “Now, this is just a hunch, but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this, because a lot of people will have this and it is very mild…So if, you know, we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better, just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work, some of the go to work, but they get better and then, when you do have a death like you had in the state of Washington, like you had one in California, I believe you had one in New York, you know, all of sudden it seems like 3 or 4 percent, which is a very high number, as opposed to a fraction of one percent.”

Among the “worst statements” are Trump’s claim that health insurers’ “have agreed to waive all copayments for coronavirus treatments”,  that the contagion would likely just disappear when temperatures rose, that anyone wanting a test for COVID-19 could get one, that the seasonal flu is worse that the coronavirus, that a vaccine would soon be available, and that  the US was “the most prepared country in the world.” On this last point, Burns refers, as many others have, to how the Trump administration “fired the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command” in late 2018.

Trump is compelled by the mounting evidence to acknowledge the significance of the coronavirus pandemic in the US

 At the presidential press conference on March 16, “Trump finally seemed to grasp that the outbreak is guaranteed to have a serious impact on the daily lives of American,” according to an article by Cody Fenwick, published in Raw Story(https://www.rawstory.com/2020/03/trump-crashes-face-first-into-reality-as-he-reverses-himself-on-the-coronavirus-in-4-key-ways). Fenwick identifies four ways Trump “changed his tune at the press conference.” Most telling, he admitted that the coronavirus is very contagious, admitting that “This is bad in the sense that it’s so contagious…. It’s sort of record-setting type contagion.” Second, he reversed himself – for the moment – on the media, saying they had been “very fair,” after having repeatedly saying that the media had used it influence “to inflame the CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant.” Third, he acknowledged, and seemed to agree, that scientists were correct in predicting that the pandemic could continue throughout the summer. Earlier he had said that it would go away in April, with the heat. Fourth, he tentatively agreed that the country could be headed into a recession, in the face of huge drops in the stock market. Though he maintained that, with the defeat of the virus, the economy would likely bounce back quickly to levels even greater than before.

Government responses

Even before Trump’s reversal, despite his skepticism, he had on January 29, 2020, established a White House Coronavirus Task Force “to coordinate and oversee efforts to ‘monitor, prevent, contain, and mitigate the spread’ of the pandemic in the United States” (https://wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_coronavirus_pandemic_in_the_United_States). According to Wikipedia, “Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar was appointed as the leader of the task force. On February 26, President Trump appointed Vice President Mike Pence to take charge of the nation’s response to the virus. And scientific experts…. were included. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was put in charge of procuring medical supplies on March 22.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was enlisted to support state and local efforts at identifying and containing the virus. And, over time, other federal agencies were instructed to focus resources in the fight against the pandemic.

The Trump administration issued orders on January 31, 2020, to deny entry to the US of foreign nationals who had recently traveled through China. On March 20, “the US began barring entry to foreign nationals who had been in China, Iran, or 28 European countries,” adding the UK subsequently.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force, including usually the president, started holding daily, nationally-broadcast, press conferences, to provide the administration with a way to keep the American people informed about current facts, what the administration was doing, and what citizens should do. While Trump tried to convey a upbeat spin at these press gatherings, the experts on the task force kept reporting on the growing spread of the virus and emphasizing what people must do to diminish its spread (e.g., “social distancing”). At the same time, during the question and answer parts of the press conferences, reporters in attendance typically posed hard questions about the ongoing shortage of testing materials to identify those who had the virus, why there continued to be shortages of “personal protective equipment” (masks, gloves, surgical gowns, ventilators, etc.), shortages of  hospital beds for sick patients with the virus, whether the president would follow the lead of some governors in issuing “stay in place” orders. At the same time, the President, the Vice President, and other government officials focused on how these shortfalls were being addressed  – or potentially addressed – by both corporations in the private sector, University research groups, and governors and mayors as well as public health agencies around the country. The evidence is still coming in as to whether these efforts will be adequate, though it is all too obvious that they have been late in emerging.

Another reversal by the President?

President Trump seems to have used the press conferences, at least in part, to promote himself and assure his political base of how “great” his contributions have been throughout the pandemic. At the same time, for weeks, he went along with the experts for some time in agreeing how serious the problem is. However, in the press conference on March 23, 2020, President Trump stunned reporters and the media audiences when he said that the emphasis on mitigating the pandemic would have to soon give way to efforts to re-boot the failing economy. Jake Johnson reports on what Trump said and the reaction of experts (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/03/24/all-about-power-ignoring-experts-trump-reportedly-moving-to-lift-coronavirus).

He writes: “Worried that the tumultuous stock market and soaring unemployment are imperiling his chances of reelection in November, President Donald Trump is defying the internal and public pleas of his administration’s own health experts and moving toward lifting federal coronavirus prevention guidelines in an effort to jumpstart the flagging economy.” In a tweet on Sunday, March 22, Trump claimed “the economic troubles caused by coronavirus prevention measures could outweigh the human costs of the virus itself.” Johnson reports: “Trump’s push to lift social distancing guidelines come as health experts, including the president’s own Surgeon General, are warning that the coronavirus threat is intensifying, not subsiding. On Monday alone, the U.S. reported more than 100 coronavirus deaths nationwide.” In contradiction to the President, Surgeon General Jerome Adams warned on Monday, March 23,

“I want America to understand this week, it’s going to get bad. Right now, there are not enough people out there who are taking this seriously… Everyone needs to act as if they have the virus right now. So, test or no test, we need you to understand you could be spreading it to someone else. Or you could be getting it from someone else. Stay at home.”

There have been expressions of concern, if not outrage, from epidemiologists and other scientists, including from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and a member of the President’s Coronavirus Task Force. Citing the Washington Post, Fauci “privately warned White House officials not to listen to growing calls from right-wing economists, Fox News pundits, business leaders, and Republican politicians to loosen federal guidelines aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, which has officially infected at least 43,000 people and killed more than 530 in the United States.” Marc Lipsitch. An epidemiology professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and director of Harvard’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics,  told the Post that lifting federal guidelines at this moment could have disastrous consequences for public health.” And, further: “Now is the time to tighten restrictions on contacts that could transmit the virus, not loosen them. If we let up now, we can be virtually certain that healthcare will be overwhelmed in many if not all parts of the country. This is the view of every well-informed infectious epidemiologist I know of.”

In the nationally-televised press conference on March 24, Trump repeated his belief that the pandemic would – could – be over, or well controlled at least, in a few weeks. At the same time, he conveyed a duel, somewhat confusing, message that his decisions would be guided by what the scientists told him about the pandemic, but that we could not let the economy stay in lock down much longer.

Concluding thoughts

So far the US Congress has passed three spending bill, the last a massive $2 trillion or so bill passed on March 25. They are designed to offer financial support for businesses in various sectors of  the faltering and shrinking economy, the under-resourced and chaotic health care system, buttress state unemployment agencies, send checks to millions of Americans, and fund childcare services for those still employed, and more. The Federal Reserve has moved to provide $4 trillion to ensure the liquidity into the banking system, lowered the interest rate to near zero to make borrowing from the Fed interest-free, and arranged to purchase worthless assets on the big bank accounts (previously called quantitative easing). There is concern that the banks mega-corporations will be bailed without conditions that require them to invest in the real economy, not in buying back their stocks and increasing the already lucrative compensation of top executives. Jack Rasmus offers an economic analysis of the potential and actual flaws in what the Fed has done at: https://popularresistance.org/an-economic-recovery-program-theirs-vs-mine.

The New York editorial board has put together a plan to fight the war against the coronavirus pandemic that, for example, calls for the federal government to “dramatically ramp up production” of the materials needed by public health practitioners and hospitals, much like what was done to transform the US economy during WWII” (https://nytimes.com/2020/03/17/opinion/war-coronavirus-trump-production.html).

The current pandemic, still in its early stages in the US and many other parts of the world. But there is much about our political, economic, social system that have been already taking us in un-democratic, unequal, and unsustainable directions. If we don’t find the courage and means to vanquish the virus, or if we do so in ways that reinforce existing societal arrangements, then the future will certainly be darker than ever conceived. Viewed in this context, the struggle to find ways to defeat the coronavirus may, nonetheless, represent one of those crucial historical moments that have profound and lasting system-wide consequences, either leading to the consolidation of an increasingly unequal, unbridled, ecologically-incompatible form of capitalism, or opening the door and taking the first serious steps towards the creation of a society that is based on the best science, on democratic and egalitarian values, and on the recognition and commitment to finds ways to achieve sustainable and peaceful ways to live together. Oh, there is a third possibility, that is, the we muddle on frantically trying to patch the system with modest “reforms,” while the systemic contradictions deepen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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