In my new book, Capitalism and Coronavirus: How Institutionalized Greed Turned a Crisis into a Catastrophe, I argue that neoliberalism exacerbated COVID-related deaths in six steps, one of which was infecting political thinking and government structures with a for-profit, cost-cutting ideology.
Epidemiologists agree that early intervention is crucial for curbing the worst effects of pandemics. America’s decentralized, state-level, bureaucratic response systems needed a President willing and able to take charge. Trump did the opposite. In order to keep market confidence as high as possible, Trump kept telling the public that all was well, leaving underfunded and privatized bureaucracies to navigate through the chaos.
JANUARY: “IT WILL ALL WORK OUT WELL”
On January 5th 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that an apparent virus had been detected in China. A day later, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a warning to America. Ten days after the CDC established the Coronavirus Incident Management System, the organization collaborated with just three U.S. airports to screen passengers arriving from Wuhan, China (from which the virus supposedly originated): Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco.
On 21st, the U.S. announced its first case of coronavirus. Trump said: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China … It’s going to be just fine.” Three days later, Trump tweeted: “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well.” Later, Trump blamed China for the outbreak.
On 29th, the Coronavirus Task Force was established and chaired by Alex Azar, a former Republican donor and ex-senior executive of Eli Lilly pharmaceuticals, a company that benefitted from Trump’s public endorsements of their products.
Dr. Rick Bright, Director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency, warned that the U.S. lacked personal protective equipment (PPE) and other vital materials. His warnings were ignored and, as a result, according to his testimony: “lives were endangered, and I believe lives were lost.” Later, Bright was fired, apparently under pressure from Trump, for questioning the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine: a drug unproven for coronavirus treatment. On 31st, as Azar’s Health and Human Services department declared a public health emergency, Trump banned travel to the U.S. from China, effective two days later.
FEBRUARY: “VERY MUCH UNDER CONTROL”
On February 6th, the first person to die from/with COVID-19 in the U.S. perished in Santa Clara. Their cause of death was not confirmed until late-April. Two days later, regional labs learned that the CDC test-kits didn’t work. Trump’s regulatory wrecking ball had been swung at barriers to corporate profits, not at the regulations that hinder emergency responses. As a result, business found it easier to make money as scientists’ hands were bound in red tape.
A Washington Post investigation suggests that the CDC asked various university labs across the nation to develop test kits, as opposed to centralizing the operation. Neither the CDC nor the regional labs had adequate funding or capacity. Once the tests were ready, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had to approve them. The FDA’s rules on Emergency Use Authorization limited tests to the labs, such as university hospitals in which they were incorporated. Stephen Hahn, FDA commissioner, approved one of the tests on 4th February.
Four days later, public health officials in Colorado, Nebraska, New York (NY), and elsewhere, found that the reagents (chemicals that isolate and amplify genetic material for ease of detection) needed to be modified, as NY and other labs reported serious flaws. But FDA regulations prevented this. For example, Dr. Alex Greninger, Assistant Director of Washington University’s clinical virology lab, spent 100 hours filling in FDA paperwork only to be told that his test results had been sent through the wrong channels. To give one example, Greninger was told: “[W]e have not received the official submission through DCC.” He later learned that the bureaucrats were referring to an entity called the Document Control Center.
FDA rules also demanded that digital copies be posted to them on a disk. Numerous test developers scattered across the U.S. complained in emails about the restrictions imposed upon them, but none raised the issue with HHS Secretary, Azar. A third of the staff at the Mayo Clinic’s so-called rapid response team were assigned to FDA paperwork. Joanne Bartkus, Director of a lab in Minnesota, described the CDC’s silence as “deafening.” By then, the WHO, working with German scientists, had produced 250,000 functioning tests for global distribution. FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn dithered, blustering that the CDC and FDA worked closely, adding the usual pabulum about needing trustworthy tests.
These matters could have been overcome, had Trump declared a national emergency and fast-tracked executive orders or legislation. Instead, on February10th, Trump said: “Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away. I hope that’s true.” Two weeks later, Trump tweeted: “Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA … Stock Market starting to look very good to me!” The CDC, meanwhile, declared its preparation for emergency.
On the same day, the Association of Public Health Laboratories wrote to the FDA, stating: “We are now many weeks into the response with still no diagnostic or surveillance test available outside of the CDC for the vast majority of our member laboratories.” Nancy Messonnier, Director of National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, confirmed publicly that the CDC was preparing for a pandemic. This coincided with, or perhaps caused, a dip in the stock market. Trump threatened to fire Messonnier.
On 26th, Trump put the Evangelical, Creationist, ex-lawyer, VP Mike Pence, in charge of the Coronavirus Task Force. On the same day, the FDA finally approved a test, but it was limited to CDC distribution, which had at last ironed out the wrinkles. As the CDC confirmed that the virus was spreading in communities, Trump lied and told the public: “We’re testing everybody that we need to test … [W]e’ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner … [W]ithin a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.”
Two days later, Trump said of COVID and the Democrats: “They’re politicizing it … [T]his is their new hoax.” At the end of February, a CDC-FDA memo prompted by the intervention of Dr. Anthony Fauci, who was working under Azar, acknowledged that “a much broader interagency approach is needed to fill the greater need for diagnostics by commercial manufacturers and laboratories capable of developing their own tests.” On 28th, Dr. Greninger and colleagues wrote to Congress pleading for a relaxation of FDA rules. Finally, a day later, the restrictions were eased, allowing Greninger and others to begin widespread testing with functioning kits on March 2nd. Brett P. Girior became head of the administration’s testing effort. He conceded that regulatory easing “might have been useful earlier.”
MARCH: “JUST STAY CALM. IT WILL GO AWAY”
On March 2nd, Trump claimed that vaccines would soon be ready, prompting an intervention from Fauci, who said that actually they would take at least one year, “no matter how fast you go.” Within a week, as Trump was telling a Town Hall that “[i]t’s all going to work out. Everybody has to be calm,” Taskforce head and VP, Mike Pence, acknowledged: “We don’t have enough tests today to meet what we anticipate will be the demand going forward.” A day later, Trump signed an $8.3bn COVID bill, lying that: “Anybody that needs a test gets a test. They’re there. They have the tests. And the tests are beautiful.” In another lie on March 8th, Trump said: “We have a perfectly coordinated and fine-tuned plan at the White House for our attack on Coronavirus” (sic).
As it became clear that a pandemic was emerging and the U.S. was not prepared, Trump tweeted a false equivalence on 9th, likening coronavirus to influenza. When tens of thousands of Americans die each flu season, “[n]othing is shut down, life & the economy go on.” A day later, Trump told Republican Senators: “Just stay calm. It will go away.” Within 24 hours, as the market continued to drop, Trump issued a statement that imported goods would be banned. This false statement appeared to cause more market fluctuations until he tweeted a clarification that people, not goods, would be banned from entering the U.S.
Finally, on 13th, Trump declared a national emergency. When a reporter raised the issue of Trump’s previous dissolution of the National Security Council’s pandemic response unit, Trump replied: “I just think it’s a nasty question.” Three days later, Trump issued a recommendation, not an enforceable order or decree, that Americans stay away from public places. Trump lied again and said that “[w]ith several weeks of focused action, we can turn the corner and turn it quickly.” On the same day, the stock market dropped a record 3,000 points. Twenty-four hours later, Trump boasted of his sagacity: “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” He then started to refer to it as the “Chinese virus.”
On 18th, Trump signed the $100bn Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Passed by the Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate, the Act did not cover America’s 1.6 million or so gig-economy or laid off part-time workers, unless they could prove that they are looking for work, nor did it centralize the U.S.’s state-level social security crisis, whose variability means that some states make it easier to claim than others. The corporate, Democrat-supporting mainstream media covered for their favorite Party, referring to the flawed bill as “Trump’s Act.”
On 18th, Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to compel 3M, General Electric, General Motors, Hill-Rom, Medtronic, ResMed, Royal Philips, and Vyaire Medical to produce PPE, hand sanitizer, ventilators, etc. Trump falsely claimed that the FDA had approved the use of hydroxychloroquine. A couple of days later, echoing the tweets of the multibillionaire Elon Musk, Trump tweeted in upper-case, “Hydroxychloroquine & Azithromycin, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine. The FDA has moved mountains – Thank You!”
Within a week, the share price of Sanofi, the company that manufactures hydroxychloroquine under the brand name Plaquenil, rose from a low of $38 on 20th to a high of $43. Later, Sanofi announced its intention to award the U.S. government first dibs on a future COVID-19 vaccine. CEO Paul Hudson said: “The U.S. government has the right to the largest pre-order because it’s invested in taking the risk.”
Democratic and Republican Governors are also to blame for in-fighting and vacillating over lockdowns. But, as President, Trump takes the ultimate responsibility for not only refusing to act, but lying and giving the impression that all was well. The early inactions, lies, dithering, and denial set the U.S. on a path to where the nation has 4.2 percent of the world’s population and, by mid-2020, had nearly a quarter of its COVID-related deaths.
In countries and states with far fewer financial resources but community-level thinking, like Kerala in India and Vietnam, which borders China, COVID-related deaths are small by comparison.