Why America was uniquely unprepared to deal with Covid-19
Beginning in 1933 with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Science Advisory Board, each president of the United States of America (USA) has established an advisory committee of scientists, engineers, and health professionals. The current President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) was formed by President George W. Bush in 2001. As soon as Barack Obama came into office, one of his first acts was to convene the committee to prepare a study on how to act in case of a pandemic. It was understood that a pandemic was very likely after the SARS epidemic in 2003. Although it was contained, scientists knew that another, more serious virus was on its way.
Hence, a programme was put in place in case a pandemic were to hit the world. In January 2017, President Donald Trump took office and within the first few days he dismantled the entire programme and started disposing of with the scientific advisory council. Trump vehemently followed the advice of one of his idols, Rush Limbaugh (a radio TV personality), who is one of the primary sources of information for many Republicans, along with Fox News. According to Limbaugh, there are four corners of deceit: academia, government, media, and science. It seems that the incumbent government believes in the axiom that these areas are contemptible, and hence not worthy of attention.
This appears to be a plausible explanation as to why the Trump administration got rid of most of the staff tasked with identifying global health problems in China, while repeatedly attempting to slash funding for the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2017, the US intelligence’s warning of a potential pandemic was dismissed. So, when the chickens finally came home to roost, the USA has been uniquely unprepared to deal with the Covid-19 crisis. If history is any indication, this is what happens when you throw science out the window and change policy with the sole aim of augmenting private power.
At the peak of the Covid-19 crisis, the air is thick with calumny, and the mud already waist-high. But this cannot be blamed entirely on Trump. There are deeper problems at play in America. Many would argue that capitalism is the root of the disaster. In 2003, the scientists cautioned about the threat a pandemic could pose. But warning without action is ultimately meaningless. The obvious candidates who could have paid heed to these early warning signs are the drug companies making huge profits, which enjoy enormous patent rights privileges under the terms of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). But for these companies it is not profitable to prepare for a catastrophe that might come somewhere down the road. On the other hand, the government has enormous resources at its disposal but often fails to put them to good use because of neoliberalism.
When President Ronald Reagan came into office 40 years ago, his slogan was “The government is not the solution to our problem, the government is the problem.” This essentially meant that decisions had to be transferred from the government – which is accountable to the people – into the hands of private stakeholders, which are not accountable to the people. For this reason, there was no preparation on part of any of the governments subjected to the neoliberal plague; a plague which is very inimical to the masses and very propitious for the designers of the system. Wealth is concentrated to an extraordinary degree, in the hands of 0.1 % of the population, owning 20% of the wealth. Corporations are extraordinary powerful and financial institutions are mostly predatory (and have almost taken over the economy).
It has been a general disaster, which has led to crisis after crisis. In 2008, the financial crisis led to institutions having to be bailed out. And it has happened once again, when the USA government produced an enormous stimulus package of $2 trillion, most of which was dished out to the banks. The Treasury poured huge amounts of money into buying stocks and bonds to keep the stock market afloat. That fit the bill of the rich investors and managers, but did very little for the economy. Money was not put into the pockets of the people, or invested in developing infrastructure, or improving education and health; the things that could have actually grown the economy. That is the difference. A neoliberal society is run for the benefit of private wealth and corporate power. Another pandemic will eventually come. The onus of responsibility is on the leaders and civil society to use the current pandemic as an opportunity to reform the country for a future crisis.