COVID-19 and the American Response
Woeful incompetence and flagrant disregard are the most apt descriptions for the federal government’s response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, which has circled the globe in less than three months and is now officially classified as a pandemic. The response, or lack thereof, to this burgeoning public health crisis is what President Trump’s electoral victory was to our democracy; not a cause but instead a symptom of our nation’s most glaring inequities.
President Trump, whose initial public statements were that the COVID-19 outbreak “would go away”, and that it would be “over” by April, has reacted with a tortoise-like response. Meanwhile, a highly contagious virus has raced across the entire country infecting citizens in nearly every state.
In one rally, the President described the growing outbreak as a “Democratic Hoax”.
To say that our President is out of touch isn’t news to anyone at this point. What is much more troubling is how unprepared our healthcare system is for a public health crisis of this magnitude, and how unlikely — regardless of who was leading our government — our institutions would’ve been be able to mount a sufficient response. Our healthcare system and government at large, typically regarded as the best in the world by the nation’s most privileged, has shown itself to be feckless when its citizens need it most. As other nations of the world competently respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, the many blemishes of our country’s apparent greatness are laid bare for the naked eye.
The pandemic will only get worse before it gets better, and due to our government’s inaction, it’s a certainty the crisis will worsen. For those aloof to the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak, estimates made by a panel of medical and infectious disease experts at the University of California at San Francisco are rightly sobering. The group estimated that anywhere between 40% — 70% of the United States population would become infected over the next 12–18 months. With no effective treatment available, deaths due to COVID-19 could number well over 1 million.
In Boston, the location of a recent hot spot, epidemiologists stated that we are on a similar trajectory as that of Italy two weeks ago, when Italy recorded 159 cases of COVID-19. On March 12th, the number of cases had increased to over 15,000, with just over 1000 deaths. Italy, a country less than ⅕ the population of the United States, has managed to test tens of thousands of more people. Italy’s response, not considered to be slow, as Italy’s single-payer healthcare system afforded the country access to free and easily accessible COVID-19 testing, is the only reason their situation hasn’t spiraled completely out of control.
Anecdotes from those who have fallen ill in the United States and attempted to get tested for COVID-19 nearly all have the same hopeless end. Not only are there not enough tests, but healthcare providers well aware of the shortage, are having to save what test kits they have for the gravely ill. The CDC has outlined precise criteria for testing people suspected of being infected with COVID-19.
- A person must be symptomatic and have had recently traveled to a country where the outbreak is present.
- A person must be symptomatic and have had direct contact with a person known to have tested positive for COVID-19.
- Be hospitalized with the most severe form of symptoms; severe cough, fever, and shortness of breath.
Considering the appallingly low number of people tested in the United States, the CDC criterion selecting for those who have come into contact with the infected is the most dubious. On March 10, only eight people in the entirety of the United States received tests for COVID-19.
As the actions of the South Korean government have shown, the most appropriate response to this public health crisis is widespread accessibility to free testing. Detecting as many infected people as possible and placing them in quarantine is the single most effective preventive measure to combat the spread of the virus. Any person residing within the borders of South Korea, symptomatic or not, can quickly receive a free test for COVID-19. As such, the death rate in South Korea is far below that of other nations and is due to freely accessible testing and the unified mobilization of South Korea’s single-payer national healthcare system.
While the United States has tested less than 10,000 people nationally, South Korea, a country with ⅙ the population, has been testing 10,000 people per day, having now tested well over 200,000 of its citizens. While South Korea’s response is exceptional among nations affected by the pandemic, the United States’s reaction has been shamefully inept for a country of such immense wealth.
The government of South Korea, following testing guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO), expedited procedures to approve COVID-19 tests for its labs, and manufacturers started producing thousands of test kits per day. The South Korean response stands in stark contrast to that of the CDC, which ignored the WHO guidelines and opted to create their own, more complicated test. CDC Director, Dr. Robert Redfield, before Congress, stated that the CDC had under-invested in public health labs and that there wasn’t enough equipment, personnel, or surge capacity to start producing mass numbers of COVID-19 tests.
Remedial actions suggested by authorities for slowing down the spread of the virus were that of “social distancing”. Those who can, are to “telecommute” to work, to avoid spreading the infection. Unfortunately, this remedy only applies to those whose employment stipulations allow for such convenience. The vast majority of the American workforce, driven by consumer spending, does not have such a luxury. Working-class Americans that grease the gears of our consumer-based economy have no choice if they’re to support themselves and their families but to show up for work.
The government’s assistance to the public, given that “social distancing” isn’t an option for much of the working-class, pales in comparison to the aid it’s providing to the markets and to Wall Street. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York responded with a swift injection of $1.5 trillion in short term loans to maintain confidence in the market and allay the fears of banks and investors. Meanwhile, a stimulus package that would cover free COVID-19 testing, paid sick leave, and other aid to the public was being debated by Congress.
The gaping holes in the measure for paid sick leave reveal how paltry the government’s assistance is to the majority of working-class Americans. Companies employing more than 500 people, constituting 54% of the American workforce, will be exempted from having to provide paid sick leave. Likewise, employers with less than 50 employees, comprising 26% of the workforce, can apply for a hardship waiver. As it currently stands, the temporary expansion of paid sick leave will not apply to 80% of the workforce. These measures, as insufficient as they are for the needs of millions of Americans, come more than seven weeks after the first recorded case of COVID-19 in the U.S.
During a pivotal primary election, where proposals for universal healthcare are at center stage, we find ourselves amid a pandemic, and the world’s most expensive healthcare system is proven impotent in the assistance of its citizens during a public health crisis. As Trump’s ascension to higher office in 2016 should have revealed, the COVID-19 pandemic reveals the frailty of a country built to serve the interests of an affluent few, while the public is left to fend for themselves.
The much more significant portion of the populace, the American working-class, has received very little help from their government. Without ample testing, the working-class, obligated to venture out into our newly infected world and earn a living, will be disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and as a result, continue to spread the virus. Those who are the most vulnerable: the sick, the old, the poor will receive the least assistance.
Opportunistic partisans will decry, rightfully so, our incumbent President’s ineptitude and lack of seriousness while at the same time, ignoring the underlying structural flaws of our patchwork system of private healthcare providers. Those partisans who described Trump’s victory as a cause and not a symptom of our country’s most glaring inequities will be responsible for arguing for an “incrementalist” approach to improving our woefully inadequate healthcare system. This insidious approach, however, is meant first and foremost to preserve the economic interests of those exerting the most influence over the federal government.
As is true regarding the conditions that lead to Trump winning the presidency, it is also true, the reasons as to why this pandemic will stretch across all of America, leaving many dead in its wake. The “American” way of doing business, the structure of our society, and how it ensures the well-being of our citizens, is flawed, fragile, inequitable, and lacking the resiliency to withstand calamities. The desire to return to a status quo form of government will only continue to preserve these many deficiencies. The inability of our government to respond with timely and uniformly distributed assistance to the COVID-19 pandemic reveals that our government’s failings are, in fact, endemic to our neoliberal style of government.