As the University’s travel and event policies constrict under the threat of a new coronavirus outbreak, it can be easy to get distracted by chatter over whether or not classes will be canceled, rather than stepping back and looking at the epidemic in a broader context. Yet even a cursory look at the national response in the United States makes clear that the coronavirus is being catastrophically mishandled. Not only has the federal government failed abysmally at preventing its spread; the growing crisis could easily overwhelm our deeply flawed health-care system. We need to prepare ourselves for a quickly worsening crisis that was caused by a history of destructive conservative policies.
No analysis of Western nations’ responses to the coronavirus can begin without a comparison to China, the epicenter of the highly contagious outbreak. Yet China has managed over a matter of weeks to contain total infection counts to tens of thousands, while leveling off new infection rates aggressively. One coronavirus hospital constructed in Wuhan over a matter of days is now being deconstructed because there aren’t enough patients to justify it. Most of this success depended on measures that are impossible elsewhere; the World Health Organization praised the effectiveness of China’s response, which included draconian policies such as instating mandatory curfews on tens of millions of people and blocking most movement in and out of Wuhan.
Such tactics are unlikely to work effectively in liberalized and fiscally conservative countries. Consider the current situation in Northern Italy — the seat of power of the right-wing Lega Nord party. When a number of coronavirus cases surfaced in the region of Lombardy, the response was swift: quarantines were instated and towns with reported cases were shut off from their neighbors, with mixed success. The state stepped in to provide treatment for those most directly affected in the quarantined areas. On the frontiers of the epidemic, however, many disease prevention and preparation services were left to private companies. Protective masks sold out quickly in stores, and families looking to stock up on emergency supplies for the coming quarantines were left looking at more than €5,000 protection kits auctioned on E-Bay or €50 masks. One Italian economist remarked that the price spike for protective masks was rational since it meant that only those with the greatest need would purchase them, but as Jacobin reports, this logic is undermined by the spectacle of Milan’s wealthiest residents spurring a booming business in useless designer masks after cheaper variants disappeared from the shelves. While China’s government provided supplies including back-up prescription medication to many affected citizens, Italians may have far less state support under the upcoming mass quarantines.
The case in Italy is not particularly unique. In Britain, almost a decade of controversial austerity and declining national health budgets has caused a flat-line in controlling preventable disease. Now that an external crisis looms, the government has publicized grand plans such as a scheme to raise “an army” of retired medical workers to aid in the fight, despite widespread assurance from retirees that they will not heed the call. While British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged to rebuild six hospitals over the next ten years, China constructed two in Wuhan in slightly over ten days.
But no other developed country’s epidemic response measures up to the sheer level of dysfunction in the U.S.. Of all the developed countries in the world, America looks perhaps worst-prepared for an outbreak — both politically and infrastructurally. This lack of preparedness has everything to do with conservative policies and governance. Our health-care system saddles some people who undergo voluntary preventative hospital checkups with multithousand dollar bills, even if they have insurance. Facing costs like that, it becomes almost impossible to contain the spread of the virus, because some of those suffering symptoms would rather risk riding them out than accept a large bill. Additionally, most working people will not find it easy to self-quarantine without pay for very long, and have received little to no state support for doing so. As voluntary and involuntary quarantines cut into economic activity, the DOW reported the sharpest overnight decline in value since the Great Recession of 2008. Out of concern for reelection, Trump has started scrambling to contain the consequences of the economic panic of the virus even while he derides media coverage as overblown.
In 2018, the Executive Branch cut funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s global disease outbreak prevention budget and fired the White House’s pandemic response team. Now, the Trump administration attempts to turn a potential catastrophe into an opportunity to look like the savior of the American people. The pattern is so common and so oft-replicated that it can almost be made into a formula: First, exploit a crisis or popular discontent to seize power. Second, cripple the ability of government agencies to respond to the underlying problems, instead turning over ever more power to private companies and the military. Then, when further crises surely strike, lean on those two sectors to clean up the mess while blaming their inevitable failure on progressives. As an echo of how Reagan increased military funding in the 1980s, Trump looks for an opportunity to boost the economy with the coronavirus. He has called on the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates in a vain attempt to slow the economic downturn. As Binyamin Appelbaum writes in the New York Times, the Fed can raise demand for goods, but the coronavirus cuts into supply by suppressing manufacturing. In a bid to slow the inevitable market panic, the Trump administration has interfered with proper epidemic preparation at every turn: by calling criticisms over Trump’s response to the virus a “Democratic hoax” and massively overstating the government’s testing capacity. The Atlantic was only able to verify around 2,000 tests of the coronavirus in the U.S., while China can perform over 1,000,000 each week.
These structural insufficiencies combined with the disastrously inept response by Trump are compounding to set the stage for a full-on healthcare breakdown. As Associate Director of Science and Technology at The Good Food Institute Liz Specht estimated in a Twitter thread, the exponential spread of the coronavirus could simply overwhelm hospital bed capacity by early May, once millions are infected in the U.S. — never mind our inadequate supplies of masks and other basic prevention equipment. Had the U.S. spent the past month effectively testing people and containing the viral spread, the rate of exponential growth might be much slower, and therefore would have lowered the peak rate of infection and spared health workers from the worst impacts. That did not happen.
There are two lessons that we all must take away from this situation. First, our country is about as poorly prepared as possible for the coronavirus. We cannot sit back as individuals and rely on a coordinated national response; rather, we need to take the appropriate health and safety precautions and make sure we are looking out for older relatives. Second, crises like the coronavirus reinforce the need for progressive state institutions, such as a nationalized healthcare system, that are capable of dealing with epidemics and protecting the most vulnerable among us. If the present outbreak looks bad, future pandemics exacerbated by climate change could be even worse, and only progressive policies that nurture a strong public health apparatus can provide solutions capable of helping the average citizen. As we watch our health-care system strain and even crumble under the weight of this epidemic, we must remember what political party is to blame, and how imperative it is to both move them out of power and rebuild our broken public institutions.
Galen Hall ’20 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.