Why COVID-19 Granted the U.S. Most Favored Nation Status

Photograph Source: Derek Simeone – CC BY 2.0

Routinely described by its “leaders” as “the greatest country in the world” (hereafter “GCITW”) and “the richest country in the world” (hereafter “RCITW”), the United States is home to 4.25% of the world’s population but 21% of global COVID-19 cases and 18% of global COVID-19 deaths. Why has the GCITW fared so poorly in responding the biggest global pandemic in more than a century?

The first and most obvious answer is that its government has been headed by a fascist lunatic who has fanned and fueled the pandemic in numerous overlapping ways: publicly denying its lethal impact while privately understanding its deadly nature; falsely and repeatedly claiming that the virus would soon disappear; backing paranoid-style protests of elementary public health protections; promoting quack cures; setting states against each other in the race for federal medical supplies; failing to order a mask mandate and a comprehensive national testing plan; failing to use the Defense Production Act to direct the manufacture of sufficient medical equipment; demeaning medical and public health expertise; modeling reckless virus-spreading behaviors; mocking and  politicizing mask-wearing; holding numerous super-spreader rallies and other COVID-19-promoting events.

As with climate change and more, Trump has disdained science, facts, and proper policy and practices. In 2018, he closed a federal office created precisely to prepare for pandemics. Last January, he blew off coronavirus warnings and advice from intelligence officials and his Secretary of Health and Human Services. Beginning in 2017, Trump removed dozens of scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s office in China, where the disease originated. Last July, he slashed funding from an American epidemiologist working in China’s leading disease agency.

Trump feared that honest communication about the virus would damage the “booming” economy he was hoping to ride to re-election. At the same time, the Social Darwinian racist and narcissist president was certainly encouraged to let the virus rage by early news that it was disproportionately killing people of color, older folks, and residents of Democratic Party-voting cities.

With the orange-brushed malignancy Trump in the top job, the GCITW became a giant failed sanctuary state for COVID-19. It is recklessly irresponsible to let this racist pandemo-fascist maniac stay in power for nearly two more months. Eight thousand or more U.S. residents now die each week from the pandemic that “our” herd-immunitarian freak of a chief executive proliferated.

Trump never developed a remotely reasonable federal coronavirus response. Now he is actively undermining efforts to enable the incoming Biden administration to develop one. While the nation’s intensive care units and morgues burst at the seams, Trump spends his “lame duck” time on the golf links and commanding his underlings to spend millions of dollars fighting the outcome of an election he lost by a big margin. The US body COVID-19 body count may well reach half a million before this mass- murderous ogre leaves office. This sick and vicious bastard belongs in a tiny dungeon, denied access to its Twitter account, FOX News, and orange facial blush for the rest of his revolting existence.

But the problems that led COVID-19 to grant the “GCIW” topmost favored nation status go much deeper than Trump, of course.

Trump and his super-spreader Republifascist allies have benefitted from the disastrous inflation of right-wing power that results today from the ancient U.S. Constitution’s anachronistic and authoritarian Electoral College, Senate apportionment and Supreme Court appointment and confirmation rules. It’s tragically absurd that the tangerine-tinted Super-Spreader gets to terrorize the nation and world and poison the transition for 78 days after losing an election his successor had to win by far more than a mere popular majority in order be declared the victor. But Constitutional Simon says.

The nation’s longstanding 50-state federalism is a deadly barrier to the coordinated national response required to defeat the virus.

The long and extreme neoliberal shredding of the United States’ never-impressive social safety net has compelled millions of American workers to remain in high-risk low-paying jobs to keep putting food on the table.

The nation’s population is disastrously addicted to anti-intellectual, for-profit “social media” platforms that became lethal transmission belts for virus-fanning anti-science conspiracy theories that fueled dangerous resistance to basic public health protections.

Trump embraced but hardly invented the xenophobic Amerikaner nativism that helped drive him to pretend to address the virus with ineffectual travel bans and border walls when he should have been advancing testing and tracing and otherwise expanding the nation’s medical capacities and response.

Also exploited and exacerbated but not devised by Trump was the extreme reactionary political polarization that turned basic anti-virus public health measures and practices (masks, social distancing, and “lockdowns”) into partisan issues. The same goes for the rampant “distrust of government” that is lethal given the central necessity of concerted state action to defeat the virus.

Since long before the Trumpenstein was let loose upon the ill-faring land, the RCITW has been a militantly capitalist nation that tragically prioritizes private and corporate profit over public health while insidiously framing health less as a collective good than as a matter of “personal responsibility.” A real public health care system would work to prevent the transmission of diseases in the broad population rather just treating sickness in individuals. A genuinely humanistic, publicly-oriented health care regime would have had sufficient beds, equipment, and personnel at the ready in reserve at all times to meet and match a pandemic whose likely emergence global and national disease experts had been warning about for many years given humanity’s ever more reckless capitalist-driven expansion into global spaces inhabited by deadly zoonotic viruses.

No such preventative and public health care system exists in the “RCIW,” which spends a pathetic 2.5% of its massive health care budget on public health. Local health departments have lost more than 50,000 jobs since the 2007-09 recession, helping undermine adequate contact-tracing after the virus broke. Hospitals have been neoliberally “streamlining,” shedding beds, equipment, and staff in pursuit of higher profits for many years. America’s expensive, for-profit health care system squanders trillions of dollars on marketing and administrative monitoring, denial of care, calculation of premiums, wasteful practices, and inflated managerial salaries and corporate dividends. “Compared with the average wealthy nation,” The Atlantic reported last August:

“America spends nearly twice as much of its national wealth on health care, about a quarter of which is wasted on inefficient care, unnecessary treatments, and administrative chicanery. The U.S. gets little bang for its exorbitant buck. It has the lowest life-expectancy rate of comparable countries, the highest rates of chronic disease, and the fewest doctors per person. This profit-driven system has scant incentive to invest in spare beds, stockpiled supplies, peacetime drills, and layered contingency plans—the essence of pandemic preparedness. America’s hospitals have been pruned and stretched by market forces to run close to full capacity, with little ability to adapt in a crisis…American hospitals operate on a just-in-time economy. They acquire the goods they need in the moment through labyrinthine supply chains that wrap around the world in tangled lines, from countries with cheap labor to richer nations like the U.S. The lines are invisible until they snap…In April, four in five frontline nurses said they didn’t have enough protective equipment. Some solicited donations from the public, or navigated a morass of back-alley deals and internet scams. Others fashioned their own surgical masks from bandannas and gowns from garbage bags (emphasis added).

Caretakers and those for whom they care have been especially put at risk in the nation’s many under-funded and understaffed for-profit nursing homes and long-term care facilities, critical and lethal breeding grounds for the virus.

The Atlantic doesn’t often subject capitalism to critical analysis vein but what the magazine described last summer is straight out of Marx and Engels’ 1848 denunciation of the bourgeois system of socioeconomic ruin and mismanagement:

“The bourgeoisie… has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’ It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”

Speaking of exchange value trumping humanity, one of the too commonly neglected areas in which shameless capitalist exploitation manifests is in the poisonously high chemical, sugar, salt, and fat content of the food that corporate America sells to hundreds of millions of Americans. This tainted perversion of mass nutrition fuels obesity, hypertension, and diabetes epidemics among numerous maladies that compromise Americans’ immunity systems and generate multiple co-morbidities that make millions susceptible to COVID-19 and its worst consequences.

Then there’s the nation’s preposterously employment-based system of health insurance, mandated by capital. The virus sparked this century’s second Great Recession, throwing many millions of Americans and their loved ones off health insurance rolls during an epic public health crisis. “In the middle of the greatest health and economic crises in generations,” The Atlantic coolly observed last August, “millions of Americans have found themselves impoverished and disconnected from medical care.” No wonder 70 percent of Americans now support Single Payer health insurance.

It wasn’t just Trump that signed on with a bipartisan COVID-19 recession bailout package that fed elite corporate and financial coffers while failing to provide ordinary Americans and small businesses with enough relief to feel comfortable with being put out of employment and business long enough to crush the virus. The absence of a proper safety net and of decent relief reflects the particularly deep hold of bourgeois class rule – the unelected dictatorship of money that lurks behind the nation’s democratic pretense – in the United States.

Trump hardly invented the half millennium-old, accumulation-addicted profits system, which can’t stand still– a disastrous thing when vast swaths of commodity exchange need to take a big breather in the interest of human survival. Capital’s constant drives to expand and commodify everything under the sun now compels the world system under its command to dig up and rapidly spread around deadly zoonotic diseases like COVID-19. (The world system’s global federalism – one interconnected world economy with 195 separate nation states – has much the same crippling impact on global public health coordination as the United States’ 50-state federalism does in the American “homeland.”)

Along with the tyranny of capital there’s the tyranny of racism, deeply understood. Racism, intimately bound up with capitalism and imperialism in the U.S. as elsewhere, has been a major driving factor behind America’s shocking COVID-19 numbers. As The Atlantic explained last August:

“As of early July, one in every 1,450 Black Americans had died from COVID‑19—a rate more than twice that of white Americans. That figure is both tragic and wholly expected given the mountain of medical disadvantages that Black people face. Compared with white people, they die three years younger. Three times as many Black mothers die during pregnancy. Black people have higher rates of chronic illnesses that predispose them to fatal cases of COVID‑19. When they go to hospitals, they’re less likely to be treated. The care they do receive tends to be poorer. Aware of these biases, Black people are hesitant to seek aid for COVID‑19 symptoms and then show up at hospitals in sicker states…Black people were both more worried about the pandemic and more likely to be infected by it. The dismantling of America’s social safety net left Black people with less income and higher unemployment. They make up a disproportionate share of the low-paid ‘essential workers’ who were expected to staff grocery stores and warehouses, clean buildings, and deliver mail while the pandemic raged around them. Earning hourly wages without paid sick leave, they couldn’t afford to miss shifts even when symptomatic. They faced risky commutes on crowded public transportation while more privileged people teleworked from the safety of isolation…Native Americans were similarly vulnerable. A third of the people in the Navajo Nation can’t easily wash their hands, because they’ve been embroiled in long-running negotiations over the rights to the water on their own lands. Those with water must contend with runoff from uranium mines. Most live in cramped multigenerational homes, far from the few hospitals that service a 17-million-acre reservation. As of mid-May, the Navajo Nation had higher rates of COVID‑19 infections than any U.S. state” (emphasis added).

Indoor spaces excessively sealed off from outdoor air supplies helped spread the disease. Nowhere has this been more lethally true than (to mention another dark social and institutional force that Trump likes but didn’t create) in the thousands of jails and prisons created by TGCITW’s giant, globally unmatched system of racist mass incarceration. Social distancing is impossible, and soap and sanitizer have been scarce in many of racist America’s overcrowded prisons, jails, and detention centers, which quickly became breeding grounds for COVID-19.

An ugly, horrifying naked version of white supremacism has been a top Trump and Trumpist calling card, of course, but U.S. racial oppression and disparity predate Trump and persist beneath and beyond the matter of who sits in the White House. They are foundationally North and U.S.-of American from the nation’s earliest genocidal “discovery,” conquest, and “settlement.”

Let’s not forget racialized capitalism’s evil twin militarism-imperialism. How spend adequately on public and social health, pandemic protection and response included, when the nation funnels more than half of its discretionary federal budget to the Pentagon to sustain to sustain a global military empire that accounts for 40 percent of the world’s military spending while paying for more than 1000 military installations and in excess of 300,000 military personnel across more than 80 “sovereign” nations? This massive military-industrial-complex (a giant public subsidy for high-tech “defense” firms like Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and Rockwell Collins) is the world’s single biggest institutional contributor to pandemic-fueling climate change.

Why did COVID hit the “RCITW” so savagely and tragically? Because the GCITW is so damn savagely capitalist, imperialist-militarist, unequal, plutocratic, and racist – that is, so precariously attached to each of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to call “the triple evils that are interrelated”: capitalism, racism, and imperial militarism. Fixing this and preventing future (in-the-works) pandemics (not to mention solving the even bigger problem of climate collapse) requires putting our collective focus on what King called near the end of his life “the real issue to be faced” – “the radical reconstruction of society itself.” Revolution, nothing less, is a matter of human survival.

I will discuss Trump, Trumpism-fascism, and COVID-19 on the “Revolution Nothing Less Show” show on Wednesday, December 16, 2020 at 8pm EST.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).