Chicago (Special to Informed Comment) – If you were asked three months ago, when news of the novel Coronavirus we now call Covid-19 was just emerging from China, which rich country in the world was the most defenseless against a global viral pandemic, would you have said anything but the United States? The Coronavirus crisis has, just a month into our national nightmare, exploded the increasingly unsustainable mythology that America is a country superior in anything but sheer military prowess. It has been like starting the rehab on a gorgeous old house and discovering that termites have gobbled up the support beams, the walls and the roof. One false move and you’ll plunge clear through to the basement.
This is a country in an accelerating freefall. The United States is already the world leader in total number of Covid-19 cases, and it will likely only be a few weeks before we take the lead in deaths from Italy. Given that roughly half the country is still not taking the kind of serious measures needed to flatten the infection curve, and that millions of credulous imbeciles, mostly Republicans, still don’t believe this is a serious threat, we are probably only at the end of the beginning of our ordeal. Everything that is wrong with American politics and society will not only prolong our suffering, but make its aftermath more difficult to recover from.
The virus almost immediately exposed advanced sclerosis in a number of critical administrative and social processes. Our health care system was, seemingly, equipped for no more than a week-long fight against any kind of deadly airborne pathogen. We operate by far the most expensive and wasteful medical system on the face of the Earth, and as it turns out, disappearing trillions of dollars into insurance companies rather than investing them in human beings did not build much resiliency at all. The heroic selflessness of the country’s doctors, nurses and support staff is not an inexhaustible resource.
Our hallowed sense of solidarity is so fundamentally broken that Congress just recessed for weeks after cutting people stimulus checks that won’t even cover a single month’s rent or mortgage payment for millions. 3.3 million newly unemployed and newly insurance-less Americans will descend upon a collapsed medical system, many of them with the virus. Uninsured and underinsured Americans and undocumented immigrants will either crash ERs or, worse, refuse to seek treatment at all. Who or what will pay for the ones who seek care is anyone’s guess, and Congress could not be bothered to ask.
Covid-19 also put another nail in the coffin for presidentialism as a political operating system. As other countries took decisive action both to contain the virus and to cushion the blow to their citizens, the United States dithered for weeks. Much of that wasted time can be laid at the feet of the petulant, conspiracy-mongering ineptocrat in the White House, a man whose name is now destined to be synonymous with ignorance, greed, stupidity and corruption until the end of time, whose ghoulish indifference to human suffering and total lack of interest in governing the country he was elected to lead will to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.
But precious time was also wasted with negotiations between branches of government controlled by different parties. What took weeks to achieve here could have been dispensed with in days in any functioning parliamentary system. Instead of coordinating the effort to stand up additional medical resources in the states, the federal government instead decided to pit governors against one another, throwing everyone at the mercy of the “free market.” The only person with the power to commandeer industries in the service of a great national effort to fight the virus decided instead to fritter away more time feuding with longtime nemeses like the country’s largest automobile manufacturer.
The onset of the pandemic also revealed that millions of Americans are selfish, ignorant fools, being led to their ultimate doom by a conservative movement that long ago chose the pursuit and preservation of political and economic power over any obligation to the common good. There is no reaching many of these people because the infection long ago migrated to the brain. How else can you explain why so many people, to this day, are still gathering together in public like they want to be infected? How else can you explain the empty posturing of the American right in February and the first weeks of March? After China locked down its citizens in January, anyone with two eyes and an Internet connection could see that something dreadful was this way coming. The seriousness of the situation was certainly not lost on the mostly Republican vultures who sold off stock portfolios after getting a private briefing on January 24th.
Yet the institutional Republican Party and all of its attendant propaganda organs, spent those critical weeks not feverishly scrambling to prevent onrushing disaster, but instead trying to prop up the almighty stock market, convincing a gullible base that the Coronavirus was not a mortal threat to the United States but rather a plot to undermine President Trump himself. The usual villains were trotted out to take incoming – the sensationalist “Fake news” media was overhyping it, the scientists were more interested in grant money and doom-and-gloom notoriety than the truth, Democrats were rooting for an economic crash so they could finally undo the results of the 2016 election, and so on.
This Covid-19 denialism has many causes. One is, I think, a natural refusal to believe that something so decisively foreign to the lived experience of nearly anyone alive today could truly happen, and what has been revealed as a blind faith that science had made this kind of pandemic an impossibility. Looking back now, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002-2003 and the swine flu pandemic in 2009 almost certainly made ordinary people overconfident that even when pathogens break out, that plucky scientists and determined policymakers can shut them down.
SARS in particular should have been an instructive lesson, and a much more dire warning. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that the technical name for Covid-19 is SARS-CoV-2. In other words, it is a closely related virus, probably produced by the same chain of zoonotic events. While SARS “only” killed about 774 people worldwide, it was a terrifying disease, a full-on assault on the human respiratory system with a case fatality rate of 15%. But it was containable by virtue of a lucky fluke. “Symptoms tend to appear in a person before, rather than after that person becomes highly infectious,” wrote David Quammen about the disease in his 2012 book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. “That order of events allowed many SARS cases to be recognized, hospitalized, and placed in isolation before they hit their peak of infectivity.”
SARS was effectively contained. But Quammen saw this all coming in 2012. He warned that the next big viral pandemic wouldn’t be that way. It will be characterized by “high infectivity preceding notable symptoms. That will help it move through cities and airports like an Angel of Death.” SARS CoV-2, thankfully, does not have such a high case fatality rate – if COVID-19 were killing people at a clip of 15% it would be much more of a human civilization-threatening event than it is, something like the plot of Contagion, except worse, since the authorities in that film appear to know what they’re doing and to be operating in good faith.
Covid-19 is spread largely by people who are asymptomatic – that is, they can infect others before they even know they have the disease. And none of this should have been a surprise to policymakers. Indeed, the Obama administration’s National Security Council produced a 69-page document with detailed recommendations for what to do should something like this crisis unfold, and it was of course casually binned by the Trump people.
But America’s coming nightmare wasn’t produced solely by a failure – shared by much of the global community – to properly prepare for a more easily transmissible version of SARS or something like it. When Covid-19 first arrived on these shores, it found itself staring at every virus’s dream – a country teeming with hapless Republicans whose minds have been completely and dangerously warped by the right-wing outrage machine, people who have been taught by their huckster media overlords to distrust all forms of scientific knowledge and expertise, trained to dismiss credible warnings of doom as just more nattering from “blue checkmarks” and inured to the consequences of their ignorance by little more than good fortune.
Most consequentially, this form of aggressive psychological decay, catalyzed by the runaway negative partisanship cooked up in the political weapons labs at Fox News and The Federalist, gradually spilled over from the closed-circle conservative media circus into the halls of actual governance around the country, producing an outbreak of unqualified, cartoonish quislings catapulted into executive power in red states all around the country by the sheer force of President Trump’s cult of personality. This is how you end up with a 4th-rate middle manager called Ron DeSantis in charge of the country’s third most-populous state, and a truly repugnant lickspittle named Tate Reeves as the governor of Mississippi, who overrode local shelter in place orders and invited the very worst case scenario to visit his state.
The president, unsurprisingly, is doing everything in his power to jam the Coronavirus catastrophe into the only framework his shriveled little mind is capable of processing: a map of the infernal Electoral College, in which evil “Dem” governors in blue states are trying to destroy his presidency and mooch off the federal government, while scrappy red-staters remain open for business. He has attacked New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He has repeatedly lit into Michigan Gov. Gretchen Wittmer, who of course has the misfortune in Trump’s world of being born a woman. He has feuded with Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker. All of them are, unsurprisingly, Democrats. We’ve seen this film before, because it’s exactly how he dealt with public officials in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Not enough people cared back then because….well, you know why.
With some notable exceptions, like Ohio’s Mike DeWine, many Republican-governed states have taken their cues from the president’s poll-fueled denialism and remain in a state of almost complete unpreparedness today. Only 26 states have issued partial or statewide stay-at-home orders – most, though not all led by Democratic executives. Many of the red state governors burying their heads in the sand about this pandemic happen to lead some of the poorest populations in the country. “Y’all, we are not California, we’re not New York, we aren’t even Louisiana,” said Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, in words that will surely haunt her for the rest of her days and beyond. All of it is going to lead not just to human and economic disaster, but also potentially to an ugly political reckoning.
You can already see President Trump laying the groundwork to blame blue states and their cities for this crisis. He’s talking about quarantining New York, New Jersey and Connecticut – but not, unsurprisingly, deep red Louisiana, which has a much worse per capita problem than Connecticut today. Not Florida, an important swing state. The way he talks about Florida is telling. “Restrict travel, because they’re having problems down in Florida, a lot of New Yorkers going down. We don’t want that.” According to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the president is playing dangerous games with federal resources, and it isn’t hard to imagine him directing critical assistance to states where he has an active political interest, or to governors who are sufficiently obeisant to him. In fact, he has already said this is how it will work.
After such a betrayal, it is hard to imagine who or what could heal these wounds. If blue states are starved of resources while bearing the early brunt of this crisis, only to see unprepared red states showered with assistance when their pandemics rage out of control, you can start to see some cracks forming in the national foundation. By late summer, it will be clear that the Republican President of the United States and his amoral toadies are responsible for tens of thousands of unnecessary American deaths, possibly the worst and most tragic mismanagement of a crisis in all of American history. If red America is determined to return this man, a mass murderer, to power in November, can the union itself survive? In the midst of an ongoing pandemic, might blue state governors (and the handful of states governed by sane Republicans) not ask whether they might be better off pooling their resources and going their own way?
Remember, the case fatality rate for Covid-19 goes up significantly for older victims.
America is 233 years old. Say your prayers.
Bonus Video added by Informed Comment: