How the United States has handled Covid-19

We lost because Trump and those around him decided it was in their political interests to let the virus run wild

Shahid Javed Burki July 12, 2020

There are important lessons to be learnt from the way the administration headed by President Donald Trump in Washington handled the Covid-19 crisis. The first impulse, of course, was to blame others — a standard way of handling all problems the Trump government needs to deal with. He started by heaping blame on the Chinese government by not letting the world know the country had been hit by a new and extraordinarily dangerous virus. Once Beijing alerted the world, countries other than the US began to take steps to protect their people from this breed of viruses, in particular when the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the world was facing a pandemic.

While China may have erred in not immediately informing the world that a new coronavirus had arrived in the country, President Trump and his colleagues in the government have treated the spread of the virus with casualness that was both dangerous and hard to comprehend. When experts warned that the progress that had been made even in the US in containing the virus would — in fact, could — be reversed if the government eased the efforts that had been made, Trump did exactly that. He urged the state governors to ease the constraints they had put on human activity. At the time of this writing, he is threatening to hold back federal finance from states if they don’t open their school systems that should be starting the school year in late August or early September.

In reviewing the situation that existed the day after the Americans celebrated July 4, their day of independence, Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning economist, pronounced his judgment on the handling of the Covid-19 crisis by the Trump administration. In an article he contributed to The New York Times, headed provocatively and did not spare the American President. In “How America Lost the War on Covid-19”, he put the blame squarely on the shoulders of President Trump. “I’d suggest the turning point was way back on April 17, the day that Donald Trump tweeted ‘LIBERATE MINNESOTA’, followed by ‘LIBERATE MICHIGAN’ and ‘LIBERTAE VIRGINIA’. In so doing he effectively declared White House support for protesters demanding the end to the lockdowns governors had instituted to bring Covid-19 under control.”

The Krugman article took a different line than the one written by Vice President Mike Pence and published by The Wall Street Journal on June 16, declaring that there wasn’t and wouldn’t be a coronavirus second wave. “In recent days, the media has taken to sounding the alarm bells over a ‘second wave’ of coronavirus infections,” he wrote. “Such panic is overblown. Thanks to the leadership of President Trump and the courage and compassion of the American people, our public health system is far stronger than it was four months ago, and we are winning the fight against the invisible enemy.” This position went against that taken by the highly respected scientists such as National Institute of Health’s Dr Anthony Fauci who had said repeatedly that the easing of constraints on human activity imposed by most states on their citizens could produce a spike in infections in the country.

Why was the Trump administration adopting such a dangerous approach? Could that be rooted in the country’s culture: the Americans are too libertarian, too distrustful of government, too unwilling to accept even slight inconveniences unless they have been proven to be in their personal interest, too indifferent about the future. But they are prepared to accept driving on the right side of the road since they could see that any other way would lead to total chaos. In the case of the disregard of science in pursuing the right set of policies to contain Covid-19, Trump and his advisers were being political rather than rational. Before the virus entered the country and killed 130,000 people (the death count by July 7) Trump had counted on the performance of the economy to win him another four years in the White House. But he could no longer boast about having produced an economic miracle in terms of the rate of unemployment which had declined to a historical low of 3.5% of the work force before the arrival of Covid-19. The rate had gone up to 13.5% and the rate of growth was in negative territory. A good part of this rise in unemployment was because of the steps taken by the state governments to deal with the spread of Covid-19. However, Trump did not support much of what the more successful governors were doing.

The anti-lockdown demonstrations were encouraged by the President. To get back to the Krugman article, many demonstrations “were organised and coordinated by conservative political activists, some with close ties to the Trump campaign and financed in part by the right-wing billionaires.” Trump wanted the economy to open and bring about large job gains in time for the November elections. That way he could boast about economic success. However, the irony is that Trump’s willingness to trade deaths for jobs and political gain has backfired. Fast reopening in the states that had Republican governors produce large job increases in May and June as about a third of the laid-off workers were rehired and the rate of growth in the economy picked up. But these were shot-term responses to ill-advised moves. When America was celebrating its independence day, the national health situation began to deteriorate. This went so far that European nations that decided to open their continent to foreign travel, decided to keep Americans out. Krugman concluded his review of the situation as follows: “The point is that America’s defeat at the hands of the coronavirus didn’t happen because victory was impossible. Nor was it because we as a nation were incapable of responding. No, we lost because Trump and the those around him decided that it was in their political interests to let the virus run wild.” Republican governors in the rad states in the country’s south such as Florida, Texas and Alabama saw the virus running wild in their areas.

The damage Trump was doing was not limited to America’s internal affairs. As a part of his strategy of shifting blame on to others, he announced the decision to withdraw from the WHO. The US withdrawal notice would be effective on July 6, 2021. The WHO was founded as a part of the UN system in 1948 to work for improving the world’s health situation. The US was the largest contributor of finance needed by the institution. The biennial budget for the WHO is about $6 billion, which comes from member countries. In 2019, the US contributed about $553 million. America also contributed to the WHO expertise by sending its doctors and health scientists to work in Geneva, the institution’s headquarter. Over time, the WHO had built a sterling record in promoting global health by working in the developing world. The American withdrawal was once more hit at the multilateral system. Lawrence O Gustin , the director of the O’Neill Institute for Global Health Law at Georgetown University, said Trump’s move of withdrawal from the WHO “is among the most ruinous presidential decisions in recent history.”

Published in The Express Tribune, July 13th, 2020.

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