Donald Trump addresses
the coronavirus taskforce
and the media at the
White House, March 30 (Photo: Getty Images)
CHINESE PROPAGANDISTS are spinning an idea that the coronavirus has democracy beat. Only an efficient command-control state, it is claimed, can provide the clear messaging, rigorous rule enforcement and smart allocation of resources required to stop the virus. With all due respect to China’s achievements in locking down Hubei, building 1,000-bed hospitals overnight, and so forth, this is nonsense. Taiwan and South Korea—both democracies—have fared at least as well. Yet it is inarguable that the second biggest and most powerful democracy has not.
America already has far more confirmed cases of the virus than any other country—160,000 at the end of March, though the number was doubling every three days. New York State alone had half of those cases—and almost half of America’s 3,000 deaths from the virus.
Perhaps 10-14 days from the virus’ predicted peak in New York, its hospital system is already teetering. Social media are circulating pictures of nurses—in the world’s richest city—taping trash bags around themselves for want of protective clothing. An intrepid colleague in New York—one of the few journalists in the city still willing to leave the safety of her apartment—spoke to nurses and doctors in tears as they walked to work. They were exhausted
As New York City’s hospitals near and exceed capacity, four emergency hospitals are being built out of conference centres in Manhattan and the other boroughs. The state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, has warned that he may need 140,000 hospital beds and 30,000 ventilators before the crisis passes. And it is not certain that the thousands of extra ventilators—artificial breathing machines to keep alive the 10 per cent or so of Covid-19 victims with severely damaged lungs—that he needs can be found.
These, Covid-19 tests and protective clothing are all in short supply—and all 50 states, Washington DC and the federal government are bidding furiously against each other to obtain them. The cost of a ventilator on the American market has almost doubled, from $25,000 to $45,000, in a couple of weeks. As an early precaution, Cuomo has ordered 4,000 of a crude manual ventilator, called bag valve masks. New York’s National Guardsmen are to be given training in operating them—hand-pump-after-pump, 24/7, in the state’s teeming emergency rooms.
Soaring nationwide demand for ventilators reflects the fact that New York is merely the harbinger of a plague already sweeping the country. It started in Washington State, where the first Covid-19 case was announced on January 21st. Over the next week or so, almost every state was found to have at least a smattering of cases; almost as if an infra-red light had been turned on the map of America, revealing a Covid rash that had previously been invisible.
The rapidity of the disease’s spread reflects how connected America is. Even relatively small and remote heartland states, like Iowa or Nebraska, have thrumming business centres and college towns with a busy airport: in the former case, Des Moines, a home of Wells Fargo and John Deere agricultural machinery; in the latter, Omaha, headquarters of Berkshire Hathaway. Yet a handful of big cities have so far succumbed most seriously. Breathing down the back of New York, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Miami are all emerging disaster areas, with coronavirus caseloads doubling every three or four days. Americans, isolated by their wealth and distance, tend to consider themselves immune from global problems. To the contrary, perhaps no populous country is more susceptible to the rapid spread of a new virus.
This has already revealed a panoply of national weaknesses—and some strengths—as pandemics invariably do. Most predictably, alas, the federal government’s response has been inadequate and slow at best. China’s efficient response to the virus (after a slow start) gave the Trump administration several months to prepare for it, in the sure knowledge that America would not be spared. Briefings by America’s intelligence agencies in January made that clear. And China and South Korea had both by then shown the most effective ways to counter the disease: test for it relentlessly and swiftly quarantine anyone who infected. Even allowing for the fact that Trump’s administration had already hobbled America’s pandemic preparedness, by ignoring the guidelines developed by its predecessor and disbanding the National Security Council’s dedicated pandemic team in 2018, it had enough time, expertise and resources to ready America’s defences against the disease.
It squandered that opportunity. Trump made a show of closing America’s borders to non-American travellers from China in late January; but the virus was already in America by then. Meanwhile, the federal agency responsible for tracking it, the Centers for Disease Control, had spurned the opportunity to use a WHO-approved test for the disease, in order to develop its own, which turned out to be faulty. Not until mid-March did America start testing for the disease at scale; though even now coronavirus tests are not generally available.
Even in efficient hands, the federal government can struggle to assert itself in times of national crisis. American governance is designed to be complicated, cumbersome even. Fearful of an overweening centre, the country’s founders and their successors established a highly decentralised system, with powerful city mayors and state governors, whose independence is as buttressed as it is challenged by a clumsily inefficient federal bureaucracy. Fragmented power structures—including rival state and federal policing and public health departments—are additional barriers to federal overreach.
The strengths of this weird system include an impressive sensitivity to local concerns and policy experimentation, fuelled by competition among the states. The flipside is that, when national disaster strikes, the federal government often finds it hard to cut through the legal and bureaucratic impediments to rapid national action. That is why the quality of the president, who alone has the requisite bully-pulpit and emergency powers required to attempt this, matters so much. And in Trump America has a uniquely incompetent incumbent.
Even after the President took steps to close America’s borders, he persisted for several weeks in suggesting the coronavirus was no threat to America—and that any suggestion to the contrary was a “hoax” put about by his opponents to weaken him. He did nothing to address the testing fiasco. His administration also blocked other aspects of America’s pandemic preparation. For example, after the Department of Health and Human Services requested $2 billion to buy respirator masks in early February, it cut that request by 75 per cent before passing it on to Congress.
Taking their cue from the President, Republican lawmakers meanwhile scoffed at the standard public health warnings and urged Americans to carry on visiting restaurants and bars for the sake of the economy. The predictable result, as the virus started ripping through Washington State and New York, is that most Republican voters said they did not consider it dangerous and were taking no precaution to avoid infection.
As the death toll rises, and the disease spreads, even Republicans are increasingly acknowledging its seriousness. But that is little thanks to the President, who has continued to direct proceedings in his inimitably awful fashion. After briefly bowing to the administration’s depleted scientific experts, and treating the pandemic seriously, he has retreated, in bizarre daily briefings, to his usual repertoire of buck-passing, distraction and narcissistic histrionics.
As the stock-market dived, he threatened to “reopen” the economy in a week or two—repeating like a mantra a line he had heard on Fox News: that the cure should not be worse than the disease. In fact, bars, restaurants and other non-essential businesses have been shuttered across America at the behest of the states, not Trump. It would be madness to end social distancing; but fortunately that is not within his powers.
In the furnace of the pandemic in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo, a press-hungry but highly capable administrator, has been most prominent of all. ‘America’s governor’, he has been called
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The administration does need to play an essential role in funnelling federal expertise and emergency medical kit to stricken states. Yet Trump has lambasted New York, Michigan and other badly-hit Democratic places, and suggested he would not help any governor who is not “nice” to him. Last week, he additionally claimed to be toying with “quarantining” New York. It is not clear what that would mean, or if it would help, or if the President has the power to do it anyway. Probably it was just another piece of off-the-cuff presidential nonsense; a few hours later, Trump said he had decided against the idea.
Ever since his election, many have fretted about what might happen if Trump was confronted with a serious crisis. He is living up to their worst fears.
This at least makes the strengths of America’s decentralised system, the licence it gives to the states, especially valuable. State governors, who tend to be closer to their constituents and more experienced at governing than national politicians, have been battling manfully to fill the void. They include Republicans such as Mike DeWine, an old-school conservative in Ohio, and Democrats such as Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan. And in the furnace of the pandemic, New York, Cuomo, a press-hungry but highly capable administrator, has been most prominent of all. “America’s governor,” he has been called.
Congress has also rise to the occasion, passing an historic $2 trillion stimulus package, a figure representing 10 per cent of GDP. It is the largest emergency cash injection ever, and includes bailouts for companies who have seen their revenues evaporate overnight, as well as direct cash payments to millions of Americans. This is not intended to head off a deep recession: America is already experiencing one. Last week, over 3.2 million people claimed unemployment benefit—four times the previous record. Rather, the unprecedented stimulus is intended to ensure the fastest possible economic recovery, after the pandemic has passed. If that remains lawmakers’ priority, they may need to provide another fiscal splurge before this is done.
The cash payments—of up to $1,200 per individual—are a bold move. But they will not tide many families over a crisis that is likely to last for several months. Goldman Sachs, an investment bank, predicts the US economy will shrink by 24 per cent in the second quarter—an unprecedented drop in a major economy outside wartime. Another estimate suggests the pandemic could claim 14 million jobs by the summer.
What might the larger effects of the pandemic be? Predictably, some on the margins of US politics are predicting it will vindicate their long-held positions. The restrictionist right says it will heighten antipathy to immigration; leftists look forward to a transformation in the relationship between Americans and the state. Such predictions are unlikely to be borne out.
Even the Black Death, the bubonic plague that swept Europe in the mid-13th-century, eradicating a third of its population, brought much less change than is often claimed. It did not, at one fell swoop, dismantle the feudal system, empower women, create a European middle class—all claims that have been made for the pandemic. Rather, as the author Ben Gummer has documented, the Black Death accelerated and accentuated changes that were already in motion. By and large, the post-plague world was the same as the pre-plague one.
What might that process of acceleration and accentuation mean?
It could mean a modest improvement in America’s social safety net: for example by improving unemployment benefits. That is a direction both parties many already be heading in, given the populist shift many Trump Republicans argue for.
More likely, the pandemic will hasten the ongoing decline of US-China relations. Trump has predictably sought to deflect blame for his lamentable handling of the crisis onto China. While the virus was based there, he called it by its approved name, the coronavirus. Since it started running wild in America he has insisted on calling it the “Chinese virus”. Others in his administration prefer the “Wuhan virus”. Last week, a conference of G7 foreign ministers failed to release a planned statement on the pandemic after Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, demanded it refer to the virus by that phrase. China has responded by spinning a lie that the virus was first brought to China by US soldiers. Where previous pandemics—including the West African Ebola crisis in 2014 and the SARS outbreak in 2003—spurred Sino-American cooperation, this one is driving them apart.
Yet it may take more than name-calling for Trump to secure re-election in November. As things stand, the President’s approval rating has seen a modest uptick during the crisis, suggesting some Americans have decided to put partisanship aside and ‘rally around the flag’ in a time of peril. But that effect is unusually modest: it is nothing like the surging popularity that George W Bush enjoyed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, for example. Trump is still lagging his presumed Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, in head-to-head polling.
And this is before Americans contemplate the tragedy that Trump has overseen and, to some debatable degree, contributed to. America’s foremost infectious diseases adviser, Anthony Fauci, estimates the pandemic may claim 200,000 American lives. Plainly, it would be wrong to reduce so great a calamity to mere political repercussions. But it is still worth noting, amid such grave uncertainty, that Trump’s presidency would struggle to survive that.