Trump’s announcement of the state of emergency was both bizarre and highly revealing. It was clear from the parade of CEOs in front of the cameras that in Trump’s version of events, the emergency would be handled by the Chamber of Commerce.
The managers of pharmaceutical companies and distribution chains had been summoned to give reassurance that their companies would provide the necessary services in an “extraordinary public-private partnership.” This euphemism is all too familiar in a country that is facing the pandemic without a public health network.
The overall impression, however, continues to be one of aimlessness and improvisation. In the absence of precise directives, citizens are forced to make their own individual assessments of the situation, which tend to diverge sharply.
Particularly emblematic of the sheer absence of authority was the chaos that broke out in the major national airports, where the wave of repatriations from Europe caused enormous crowds and hours-long waiting in crowded rooms to pass health checks.
A presidential tweet acknowledged the bad impression: “Pardon the interruptions and delays, we are moving as quickly as possible.” It sounded much like a canned reply from customer support, with a similar level of trustworthiness.
Indeed, every communication to the nation by the president now resembles a corporate press release whose main purpose is to protect his image.
And the president continues to be obviously more interested in the progress of the Dow Jones Industrial Average than in the course the epidemic is taking.
On Sunday, the Fed allocated $700 billion to buy securities and calm the markets and cut the interest rate down to 0-0.25%. The interventions to support the banks and the finance sector were immediate and automatic. As were guarantees for the airlines and other industries. A bailout for the citizens themselves is still being negotiated.
According to the Federal Reserve, 40% of Americans could not even afford an unforeseen expense of $400. Furthermore, 66.5% of personal bankruptcies—involving a total of 530,000 families per year—are declared due to medical expenses. In the meantime, large companies like Amazon and McDonald’s were gifted an exemption from the mandatory sick leave measures approved by Congress, which will only benefit around 20% of workers. The masses of precarious, freelance and part-time workers, plus the workers of the gig economy, will see little if any benefit from the interest rate cut when they have to pay their next rent.
Behind all of this lies the implicit prejudice of a system tilted in favor of private profits. Trump represents the acceleration of the assault on the last vestiges of the welfare state, a demolition operation that he has been trying to complete for three years now, particularly aiming to dismantle Obama’s reform of medical insurance. Even if Trump wasn’t unwise and incompetent, there could hardly be a worse president to have for the current crisis. The announcement of his VP, Mike Pence, about the swab tests to be made available in the parking lots of Walmarts paint a vivid picture: the average American has gotten used for many years to getting vaccinated in drug stores that have taken over a public contract, or paying a private provider for the service.
It is with such “infrastructure” that the superpower of “flexible” health care and minimal government is facing the pandemic. The virus is destined to lay bare not only the ineptitude of a foolish and plutocrat president, but also the structural weaknesses of social Darwinism.
On the other hand, the neoliberal response to the pandemic, even before being championed by Boris Johnson, had been lucidly articulated by Rick Santelli, an analyst for the economy-focused broadcaster CNBC: “I’m not a doctor … But maybe we’d be just better off if we gave it to everybody, and then in a month it would be over … but the difference is we’re wreaking havoc on global and domestic economies.”
Such an eugenic path, all in the service of Wall Street, is a logical consequence of a society where the market replaces the state, in a country where corporations have been declared persons with rights, whose funding of lobbyists is protected as “free expression.” If public health is a business, the pandemic might be big business indeed, and it was perhaps inevitable that we would hear of an attempt to secure exclusivity for a possible vaccine, at the behest of Trump himself, through a hostile takeover of a German pharmaceutical company.
The virus could have the effect of making clear, in an unequivocal and tangible way, the implications of selling democracy to the highest bidder, and the practical consequences of an inequality that is now unsustainable.
The pandemic promises to unmask the shamelessness of the plundering by the White House dynasty that gutted what was left of public property (including the National Security Council’s pandemic response unit last year, no less).
In a global emergency that is putting everyone to the test, the United States of Trump appears to be the worst equipped to deal with it. It is hard to imagine that the catastrophic ordeal they will endure will not affect the global hegemony of the US afterwards.
The most important lesson Americans could learn from the economic disaster that fate has dealt them might be that, as Bernie Sanders said on Sunday, they should “create a country where we care about each other, rather than a nation of greed and corruption, which is what is taking place among the corporate elite.”
After all, the New Deal had to come after the Great Depression.
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