Our government is headed by an incompetent paranoid trying to wreck the institutions that could contain this deadly virus
This week the US stock market suffered its largest weekly loss since 2008, as cases of the novel coronavirus not explained by overseas travel or contact with a person known to be infected were reported in California, Oregon and Washington state. On Saturday, the first US death was reported.
A health crisis is rapidly morphing into an economic crisis and so far, the US response has left much to be desired.
Epidemiologists in other countries have used surveillance testing under World Health Organization guidelines to track the spread of the disease before large numbers of people turn up at hospitals. But according to a new report by ProPublica, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lost weeks that could have been used to track its possible spread in America because it insisted upon devising its own test, which turned out to be flawed.
Donald Trump and his administration would rather blame the media and the Democrats, and even question whether the virus is real.
On Friday, Trump accused news outlets like CNN of doing everything they can to instill fear in people while some Democrats are trying to gain political favor by saying a lot of untruths. Acting White House chief-of-staff Mick Mulvaney, meanwhile, told conservative activists journalists were hyping the coronavirus because they think this will bring down the president; thats what this is all about.
At a campaign rally on Friday evening in South Carolina, Trump claimed concern about the virus was the Democrats new hoax, after the Russia investigation and then impeachment.
Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus, he said.
A few days before, Trump claimed that in sounding the alarm about the threat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was not thinking about the country.
Trumps idea for how to deal with the potential crisis? He says hes considering another round of tax cuts.
As if cutting taxes would somehow motivate people fearful of contagion to venture into shopping malls, movie theaters and jet airplanes. As if pumping up the stock market is the most important first step to dealing with a public health emergency. As if Trumps earlier round of massive tax cuts trickled down to average Americans.
Trump is also instructing all government health officials and scientists who have information about the virus to first clear their statements with the White House. Controlling the flow of information within an administration that is not especially renowned for truth-telling doesnt seem calculated to increase the publics confidence in what they hear.
Trump has taken several other steps, all of them backward. He has eliminated a National Security Council position that coordinates responses to pandemics. He has ignored an expert panels warning that the US is badly unprepared for global health threats and needs to restore funding to address them, and is requesting that the CDC budget be cut by almost 16%, starting in October, and the Department of Health and Human Services budget by almost 10%.
Trump is also proposing a $3bn cut to global health programs, including a 53% cut to the World Health Organization and a 75% cut to the Pan American Health Organization.
When hes not accusing his enemies of hyping the coronavirus or doing what he can to undermine the nations and worlds ability to cope with it, Trump and his administration have been making America more vulnerable to all sorts of health risks.
Hes demanding that anyone receiving public assistance have a job, which presumably will make many people reluctant to stop working if they feel sick.
Beginning next month, for example, nearly 700,000 Americans who arent working will no longer be eligible for food stamps. It doesnt seem to have occurred to the Trumpsters that the likely result is for many with symptoms to ignore them in order to keep their jobs, thereby spreading disease.
Trumps obsessive efforts to wreck Obamacare also makes the coronavirus and other contagious diseases more dangerous, for the obvious reason that people without health insurance are less likely to see a doctor. The number of Americans without health insurance has risen steadily during Trumps tenure. A 2018 poll found that 44% nearly half didnt see a doctor because they couldnt afford it. Another recent survey found that 90% of Americans go to work while theyre sick.
Trump and Republicans have rejected all safety nets including paid family leave and guaranteed sick leave that people need to cope with personal health emergencies. This also makes America less prepared for contagion.
What Trump and his administration fail to understand, but which the coronavirus should make painfully clear, is that personal health and individual wellbeing are inextricably linked to public health and social wellbeing. This is not a socialist hoax.
A new and especially virulent contagious virus is bad enough. That it is spreading at a time when the US government is headed by an incompetent and vindictive paranoid who denies it, blames his opponents for it, and dismantles whats left of the institutions that could contain it, makes the danger far worse.
Robert Reich, a former US secretary of labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few and The Common Good. His next book, The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It, will be out in March. He is a columnist for Guardian US