A deadly new disease is spreading, and it’s come when we’re least prepared to handle it.
The world has been gripped by fear of the highly contagious new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, that emerged in China late last year and quickly jumped national borders, spreading faster than all efforts to contain it. There have been outbreaks in South Korea, Italy, Iran and now the U.S. Tens of thousands have been infected, hundreds have died, and from all indications, the virus has only begun to spread. This has the potential to become a global pandemic.
To be clear, I’m not urging panic. The coronavirus has the potential to cause great suffering, but with an estimated death rate around 2%, it’s not an existential threat. This isn’t an abandon-society-and-retreat-to-a-bunker-in-the-woods scenario. The most important things an average person can do are the boring, effective ones: get your vaccinations, wash your hands more, try not to touch your face.
But the danger is real, and as I said, this has come at the worst possible moment. The U.S. is chaotic and all but leaderless, utterly incompetent and unequipped to grapple with the crisis.
To be fair, the virus might have come to the U.S. anyway, no matter what precautions we took. Even China’s draconian quarantine measures didn’t halt its spread, and it’s doubtful that any democracy would put up with such harsh restrictions on individual freedom.
But even if that’s true, the Trump administration has actively assisted the spread of the disease by committing one unforced blunder after another. They evacuated sick people back to the U.S. on a regular commercial flight, against the CDC’s advice. They sent federal employees who had no training or safety equipment into quarantine areas to greet evacuees. They rolled out defective testing kits that bottlenecked early detection and response. Their officials are sitting on what information we do have about how to treat it.
Worst of all, Trump has decimated the pandemic-response task force created by President Obama after the 2014 Ebola outbreak for a situation just such as this:
In 2018, the Trump administration fired the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command, including the White House management infrastructure. In numerous phone calls and emails with key agencies across the U.S. government, the only consistent response I encountered was distressed confusion. If the United States still has a clear chain of command for pandemic response, the White House urgently needs to clarify what it is — not just for the public but for the government itself, which largely finds itself in the dark.
As a tragicomic illustration of just how unprepared we are, witness Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Ken Cuccinelli asking Twitter for help accessing a private map of the virus’ spread:
“Has the Johns Hopkins map of the coronavirus stopped working for other people, or just me?” Cuccinelli wrote, including a link to the map. “I just tried again, and it looks like Johns Hopkins put the information behind a membership wall of some kind. Seems like bad timing to stop helping the world with this (previously) useful resource. Here’s hoping it goes back up soon.”
This is what always happens when America elects Republicans. They have no interest in, or are actively hostile toward, the functions of good government. They staff critical positions with inept seat-fillers, or leave them vacant. Then, when a crisis hits, they’re utterly unprepared to cope with it. This is what happened during Hurricane Katrina, when George W. Bush’s incompetent and unqualified head of FEMA, Michael “heckuva job” Brown, fiddled as New Orleans drowned:
Two days after Katrina hit, Marty Bahamonde, one of the only FEMA employees in New Orleans, wrote to Brown that “the situation is past critical” and listed problems including many people near death and food and water running out at the Superdome.
Brown’s entire response was: “Thanks for the update. Anything specific I need to do or tweak?”
Now history is repeating itself. And this time around, it’s magnified by Trump’s pathological narcissism, which leads him to treat anyone bringing bad news as an enemy, and his sociopathic unconcern about telling black-is-white, up-is-down lies.
With evidence mounting that the virus is spreading in the U.S., and with the federal government floundering and leaderless, Trump has resorted to pretending that everything is fine and silencing the few competent officials who are trying to raise the alarm. As Amanda Marcotte notes:
Even as Trump’s own health officials noted that there have been at least 60 cases in the U.S. and they expect many more, Trump dismissed the situation, suggesting that the disease has already been beaten back. “We’ve had tremendous success,” he said, asserting that the whole thing was likely to end quickly, with “just one or two people [infected] over the next short period of time.”
…To make it worse, the Trump-supported media has decided to attack one of the remaining competent people in charge, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They’re furious that Messonnier has spoken to media outlets, commenting on the threat of the virus and asking health care workers to prepare themselves.
And according to another report:
The White House moved on Thursday to tighten control of coronavirus messaging by government health officials and scientists, directing them to coordinate all statements and public appearance with the office of Vice President Mike Pence, according to several officials familiar with the new approach.
Trump is worried that the economic disruption caused by the virus – overseas factories and supply chains at a standstill, cancellation of travel and conferences, small businesses closing and corporate profits dropping as fearful people stay home – will cause a recession that will hurt his chances of reelection.
But rather than taking the threat seriously and using the vast resources available to combat it, he’s chosen to lie and cover it up, telling people that it’s no big deal and that it will be cured. He’s even called it a Democratic hoax. He cares more about the performance of the stock market than the number of dead Americans.
One upshot of this is that, if the coronavirus spreads into Trump-supporting enclaves, it’s possible that his supporters will get sick and die at higher rates because they believed the propaganda spread by their dear leader and didn’t take any precautions. That’s not even to mention the fact that most conservatives are elderly, and the virus is deadlier in older cohorts, or the fact that red states are generally poorer and sicker. They’re even less prepared than the rest of the country if this blows up into a pandemic.
It would be too cruel to call this poetic justice, but I might describe it as cause and effect. Deny reality for too long, and it catches up with you. Shred the social safety net, refuse to grant paid sick leave, make basic medical care too expensive or too inaccessible – and you’re creating a situation where poor people have no choice but to come in to work sick and risk infecting others. Conservative philosophy in action has taught us, vividly, that we’re only as safe as the most vulnerable members of society.
Image: Transmission electron microscopic image of a virus. Via CDC/Cynthia S. Goldsmith; William Bellini, Ph.D.