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President Trump this week called himself a “wartime president” in the struggle against coronavirus. Perhaps he was drawing encouragement from that widely touted piece of political folk wisdom that every American president who starts a war in their first term is re-elected.
Of course, this little aphorism is factually incorrect, and misunderstood. It is likely based on a misremembering of how Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s popularity soared even as he led America through the bloody cauldron of World War Two. A “rally round the flag” effect does exist, and an ABC poll has found 55% of Americans approve of Trump’s handling of the crisis – so far. However, such effects are usually short-lived and this one seems all but certain to fade in the face of the coming crisis.
Going to war FDR was widely popular and trusted. He had a firm and effective hold on government, and he had done all he could to prepare his country for war. The war itself also ushered in a huge economic boom.
Trump has historically low approval ratings and is widely distrusted. His government has been sclerotic, and most importantly he has actively hurt efforts to prepare America for coronavirus. Now the USA is facing not just mass deaths but an economic depression on an unimaginable scale, exacerbated by the dysfunction at heart of government.
The fatal issue is a lack of preparation. Trump’s early restriction of flights from China likely bought America a little time to prepare. That time was wasted. Testing, vital for containing the outbreak, was slow and held up by faulty test kits. There were also overly stringent limitations on who could be tested, which saw patients doctors were all but certain were coronavirus positive denied tests. On top of all this was bureaucratic inertia which meant initially only a handful of bodies were allowed to perform the tests. Trump, far from acting to improve the response, repeatedly insisted the whole affair was a “hoax” and exaggerated by the Democrats and the media to damage him. He was apparently keen to keep the number of diagnosed cases down as it was an election year.
As a result testing only seriously started to get underway around 13 March and now over 100,000 have been administered. This number is still much lower than the number of tests carried out in South Korea, whose containment response has been widely praised.
The US was also slow to impose the quarantines and lockdowns necessary to check the virus’ spread. Even basic social distancing measures were undermined by Trump’s refusal to take the situation seriously. According to the report by Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London, which transformed the British response, America was on track for some 2.2 million deaths if it failed to act.
Some authorities in the US are taking the necessary action. California became the first state to adopt a “shelter in place” policy today though New York is also introducing much the same measures. Various cities facing a large outbreak have also adopted similar responses.
Still, the damage is almost certainly already done and political divisions are making it worse. It is noticeable that Republican states have generally been slower to take measures to contain the outbreak. Following Trump’s lead Facebook groups have proliferated claiming the virus has been exaggerated. A Pew Research Center poll released Wednesday found that 62 percent of adults say the media is exaggerating the risk of the virus. Republican supporters in particular have been found to be less likely to be taking social distancing measures. The fact that the more rural areas where they tend to be concentrated have yet to see many cases of the virus contributes to the scepticism. However, it is only a matter of time.
Patients are already piling up in some cities and lack of preparedness is beginning to take its toll in US hospitals as well. In many urban centres, despite the US government having two months to help stockpile and distribute key supplies vital personal protective equipment such as N-95 masks are running short – or are completely exhausted. Doctors and nurses in some hospitals are already reporting being forced to reuse masks, or even go without. Of course, exposed to patients every day and already working overtime these medical professionals were at risk even with proper medical equipment. Without proper equipment they are going to fall ill in large numbers taking them out of commission just as the tsunami of cases arrives.
US medical workers are, of course, aware of this but for the moment all they can do is keep working and desperately appeal for donations of medical equipment under the slogan #GetMePPE. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that medical professionals have been reduced to social media appeals in a country where cash strapped patients often turn to online fundraising to make ends meet.
As shortages force standards down the Center of Disease control has gone from saying N-95 masks should be worn to prevent infection, to saying surgical masks can be worn, to saying that nurses can wear bandanas and scarves as a last resort. It will look like a grim shootout at the OK Corral when bodies pile up.
And pile up they will. There is already a global shortage of ventilators needed to keep patients in intensive care alive. Those available or about to be manufactured have been snapped up by China, South Korea, and Italy. As it tries to acquire new kit the US has found itself at the back of the queue.
In the face of the looming disaster drastic action is needed. But having actively harmed coronavirus preparedness the Trump administration is now inevitably failing to step up. The 500 million masks ordered by Trump administration have an 18-month delivery period. The administration is apparently hoping they will be delivered incrementally.
Trump has also rowed back on the suggestion that he would invoke the Defence Production Act to force American industry to ramp up production of critical equipment. On Friday he suggested that procuring supplies should be the responsibility of state governors. Yet without federal government action state action will be harder as well. Speaking on Friday, Michigan Senator Gary Peters revealed that Michigan was ready to start turning shuttered car factories into medical supplies factories but needed Trump to trigger the DPA to able to do so.
As these factories lay idle Trump was busy complaining on Friday that the federal government was not “a shipping clerk” and it was not its responsibility “to be out there buying vast amounts of items”. But then, what should we have expected? It’s not my responsibility has always been the cry of every jobsworth and two-bit narcissist seeking to dodge the blame for the harm their actions cause.
As it is – without a lucky break – the US looks to be on track to match Italy, whose worst hit hospitals have been compared to battlefields.
The battlefield may become somewhat more literal in America as well. With sickening predictability reports of coronavirus gave us a uniquely American twist on panic buying. Gun stores were cleared out with queues around the block in some areas.
Mix the administration encouraged belief that coronavirus is a “hoax” with other widespread conspiracy theories about how federal agencies will manufacture a crisis to impose martial law – or “marshall law” as Senator Marco Rubio mistakenly dubbed it this week on Twitter – and it is surely only a matter of time before some lunatic or survivalist militia takes it upon themselves to violently resist the coming quarantines. When mobs in the Congo killed medical workers fighting Ebola people chalked it up to the supposed backwardness of the country. What will they chalk it up to if the same happens in America?
Of course, the potential for violence increases in case of social breakdown – and the massive oncoming depression that looks set to hit the American economy will hardly help with this. JP Morgan analysts have predicted US GDP could decline in the second quarter by 14 percent.
While the economic disruption caused by mass quarantines has barely got underway there are surges in unemployment, although there is confusion about the numbers. A SurveyUSA poll released yesterday claimed 9% of working Americans, 14 million people, have already lost their jobs and quarter have had their hours reduced. This was dismissed by some as an exaggeration but the Labor Department reported a 30 percent increase in unemployment claims last week. Even the White House has predicted unemployment could hit 20 percent in the next few months. Though, perhaps due to Trump being so fatally averse to bad news, it has also asked individual states to delay releasing their unemployment rates.
Emergency measures are needed economically as well as medically. Here too America’s sclerotic political system has maintained its morbid chokehold on effective action. The first bill passed to deal with the crisis centred on free coronavirus testing and sick pay. It was riddled with exemptions, in true American style, and its sick pay provisions left millions uncovered.
Another $1 trillion plan to help individuals and companies survive the economic crisis has been drawn up. Proposed by Senate Republicans the bill, as well as extending hundreds of billions in loans to companies, proposes to send cash directly to Americans. For some perverse reason those not liable for federal income tax i.e. the very poorest would receive less. According to Ernie Tedschi, a former Obama administration economist, his initial analysis shows that about 22 million people earning under $40,000 a year would see no benefit under the GOP plan.
The plan has already come under assault from all sides. Democrats are demanding more generous provisions paid-leave and a generally less corporate friendly line. But many Republicans have also attacked the plan voicing concerns about how the bill penalises the poorest. Meanwhile, others – small-government proponents – have attacked the idea of direct cash grants.
If an effective response is not put together quickly the limited trust of Americans in their political class will be destroyed. It is already at an all time low – perhaps justifiably since it has been revealed two Republican Senators with access to confidential briefings on the crisis sold off their stocks before the coronavirus crash and bought ones which might do well in the crisis even as they publicly proclaimed there was no need to worry.
Maybe the crisis will focus American politicians’ minds and force some sort of decency and another compromise deal. But any measures will be palliative now.
As in China the spread of the virus was concealed and the US is now lurching into the same crisis. The much-delayed Chinese response at least appears to have had the virtue of a certain brutal efficacy. There is little sign of this so far in America. Without it an economically ship-wrecked America will emerge from this crisis having suffered a vast number of avoidable deaths and with its credibility as a global power in ruins.