Of the 3.2 million people throughout the world who have contracted the COVID-19 virus, more than one-third are Americans, or people who had the misfortune to be in the United States when the virus reached these shores. New York City, widely celebrated for a century as one of the world’s most influential, creative, and energetic metropolises, has been crushed by the virus. Of the 63,000 dead in the United States, more than one third were residents of New York state alone. In just two months a tiny pathogen has knocked the United States off the pedestal it has been teetering on for decades. The rapidity with which the virus has spread, the clear inability of federal and state government agencies to contain it, the lack of ventilators and personal protective equipment for front line medical workers, and the absence of wide-scale testing and contact tracing all demonstrate that the United States is not only a failed state, but also a dystopia that poses lethal threats to its own citizens. While much of the current damage and distress can be attributed to the criminally negligent Trump administration, economic policies and political trends of several decades’ duration paved the way for this disastrous situation. The virus could not have taken us down this far and this fast without our complicity as a people who have come to accept stark socioeconomic disparities and injustices as simply “the natural order of things” or the cost of doing business.
A fundamental cause of America’s failure to confront the ravages of COVID-19 is the erosion of the public sector, most notably governmental programs first put in place in the context of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” to ensure public health, economic resilience, quality public education, employment opportunities, and a sense of national solidarity. Although a catch-phrase of social media and the main stream media now asserts that “we are all in this together!”, we quite clearly are not. The immense gap between the obscenely wealthy and the barely surviving precariat, which began to grow in the late 1970s as businesses and corporations decided to serve shareholders rather than stakeholders, accounts for the stark disparities we are now witnessing in America’s COVID-19 infection and death rates.
African Americans and Latino Americans working in low paying service sector jobs devoid of health and retirement benefits comprise the overwhelming majority of the dead. In New York City, more than half of those who have perished during this pandemic were working class people of color. In Richmond, the capital of Virginia (and formerly the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War in the 1860s), everyone who has died from COVID-19 was African American. In Washington, DC, most infections have cropped up in wealthy, predominantly white neighborhoods like my own, but the majority of the city’s dead lived in Washington’s largest and poorest all-Black neighborhood, Anacostia.
Similarly, elderly Americans are disproportionally represented in the ranks of the dead, not only because of pre-existing conditions, but also because of the crowded and substandard housing conditions forced upon them. Assisted living and skilled nursing care facilities, where middle class families eviscerated by neoliberal economic policies warehouse their elderly relatives, are primary sites for the spread of the virus. One often hears that you can tell a lot about a society by how it treats its elderly. On that score, the United States has failed spectacularly. Over the past 30 years, poorly managed facilities for the aged have become highly lucrative businesses, operating with scant government oversight while siphoning off the pensions and health benefits of desperate elderly people who cannot count on care at home because their adult children are working multiple jobs with low pay, often without health benefits of their own. The aged, along with the poor and people of color, are clearly viewed as expendable in the United States. As the seriously ill swamped emergency rooms across the nation in April, we heard of doctors having to make difficult choices about who would get ventilators, and many patients over the age of 70 did not receive any extraordinary measures.
Despite its vaunted status as the leader of the developed world, the United States has been crippled during this pandemic by its hostility towards, and lack of, a national health care system. If you don’t have a job, you don’t have health insurance. And even if you do have a job, many businesses earning unimaginably large sums of money each year refuse to offer health care benefits to their workers. God forbid a corporation should divert any of its immense capital gains away from its shareholders to its workers! Even before the advent of this pandemic, many Americans were just one health crisis away from bankruptcy and homelessness. With the lockdown and closing of most businesses in the United States, millions of American workers are going without salaries for months, dissatisfied with the paltry $1200 stimulus checks allotted them by the federal government, and facing the possibility of eviction if they can’t pay their rent or mortgages this month. But going back to work (which many Republican politicians and business leaders are demanding in the context of “opening up America for business again”) poses the risk of contracting the virus and having no means to pay for medical care.
None of these social, economic, and health care deficiencies began with the inauguration of Donald Trump in 2017. The retreat of the public sector from social welfare programs, the gutting of labor unions, and the empowerment and enrichment of the private sector at the expense of America’s working class began in earnest forty years ago, and are best epitomized by the neoliberal “trickle down” delusions of the Reagan administration. The greed and unaccountability of the private sector, particularly the financial services industry (which now exercises disproportionate influence on Congress through lobbying and unlimited campaign contributions), was laid bare for all to see in the 2008 market crash and the bursting of the housing bubble. The architects of that disaster paid no meaningful price for their decimation of the US and world economy. They were “too big to fail,” after all, and got bailed out by the US government while America’s middle class watched the bottom drop out of their savings accounts and dreams.
Trump inherited a fractured and unequal system, to be sure, but his administration has exacerbated America’s profound dysfunction in novel ways, that, in conjunction with this novel corona virus, have irreparably broken the United States socially, economically, and politically. A hallmark of Trump’s misrule has been his perverse delight in pitting Americans against one another. In the context of this pandemic, we see the toxic Trump effect most clearly in the battle among states for medical supplies such as ventilators, surgical masks, and testing supplies, as well as in the emerging unrest and protests spearheaded by Trump supporters loudly demanding the end of social distancing directives.
Trump, a classic narcissist, is interested only in protecting his own massive and fragile ego at the end of the day. Economic downturns are laid at the feet of the Chinese government. (Trump continues to insist that COVID-19 is a pathogen produced in Chinese bioweapons laboratories, despite all evidence to the contrary.) After the debacle of Trump’s comments last week that Americans might want to try inhaling or injecting bleach into their bodies to kill the virus, the president has withdrawn from his daily surreal press conferences addressing the pandemic. And even as his COVID-19 team has stressed that the lockdown is working, Trump has been his usual trigger-happy self on Twitter, whipping up his deplorable base to protest en masse in crowds disregarding social distancing directives, demanding that Democratic-led states lift the quarantine.
The dangerous populism that Trump has stirred up culminated in a mob of armed and angry white men barging into Michigan’s Capitol Building this week in a clearly terroristic threat against Michigan’s senators and representatives. Trump has a particular animus against a number of Democratic governors, most notably Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Ralph Northam of Virginia. But perhaps the most shocking news story this week came from the state of Maryland, where Republican Governor Larry Hogan revealed that his state had obtained thousands of corona virus testing kits from South Korea, and was protecting these under armed guard by the Maryland National Guard and State Police at an undisclosed location so that the federal government’s COVID-19 task force procurement office, under Jared Kushner’s direction, could not seize them.
Pitting state against state, citizen against citizen, and federal against local levels of government sets chilling precedents that will ultimately do more harm to the body politic than the COVID-19 virus. If only there were some way to quarantine the American public from the deadly pathogen that is the Trump Administration.