Nancy DiTomaso

Why Has the U.S. Fumbled So Badly in Responding to the Coronavirus Pandemic? It Is Part of the Republican Agenda

I live in suburban New Jersey, which is outside of New York City. New Jersey constitutes another “hot spot” for the novel coronavirus. Because many of us are in houses rather than apartments, we can go outside. Although parks are closed at present, we can take walks as long as we avoid others. We are supposed to wear masks, but they are hard to find or buy, so many do not do so. We can go to the grocery stores, but supply chains are broken, so there are shortages of many goods, especially paper products like toilet paper. Most food basics are missing from the selves, and certainly the brands many of us prefer are nowhere to be found. The same is true for ordering online, but some goods are available, so there are many essential workers now delivering to those sheltering at home. They have to go out, so that we can stay in.

As of today, New Jersey has 118,652 confirmed cases and 7,228 deaths from the virus, even though testing has been done only on those with symptoms, and often only selectively among them. This constitutes 814 deaths per one million in the population, which is higher than any other place on earth currently reported, with the exception of New York. The real numbers are likely to be substantially higher. There was a recent analysis that identified the higher death rate in various regions beyond what would be normal for the place and time of year, so those added deaths are attributed to the virus, although not in the official reported numbers. Being locked down in the suburbs, especially for those of us with professional jobs that we can do online and for which we are still getting paid, is clearly not the same thing as for the majority of the population. According to an analysis by Robert Reich, about a third of the population includes those who can work online, another third are essential workers who have to go out every day to do their jobs, often without protective gear. Many of these workers have been infected, and many have died, including nurses and doctors, police officers, emergency transport workers, grocery store workers, and most recently in high numbers, those working in meat packing plants. Reich notes that nearly a third of the population is now unemployed, furloughed, or otherwise unpaid, and many have lost their health insurance if they had any. The balance are those in vulnerable populations who have also been at high risk and are not able to social distance, such as those in nursing homes, prisons, refugee or immigrant holding facilities, the homeless, and even those in the military who have to work in close quarters. All in these vulnerable populations have had high numbers of infections and deaths.

As the world looks at the U.S. from afar and with dismay, the obvious question is why did things get so out of hand in the U.S.? Why have Donald Trump and his administration handled things so badly and why have they failed to take what seems to be necessary steps to prevent the spread of the virus and to protect both health and the economy? Governors of states with high infection rates and with over burdened health care systems (many of which are on the coasts and are Democratic controlled states that voted against Trump in the presidential election) have begged the U.S. government to provide needed supplies and to centralize the production of needed goods, including testing kits and the supplies associated with testing, personal protective equipment needed by health care workers and many others who must be exposed to the public, and to put in place a program and to pay for the personnel to do the contact tracing that is needed before the economy can open back up. Trump and his administrators have refused to do so, and they have often made things worse by bidding against the states for the same needed supplies, often increasing the prices many fold. They also waited many critical weeks before responding at all to the crisis, and then slow walked the steps that needed to be taken to keep the virus from spreading so quickly. The economic packages that have been put in place to shore up the economy have been slow in coming, chaotically administered, often directed to wealthy cronies, and have not covered enough people, nor enough industries. Most dramatic to date is that funds have not been provided to state and local governments to cover the costs they have incurred to manage this crisis and the economic fallout because of it. With 30 million people (one in five in the U.S. labor force) now having filed for unemployment and many more who are not eligible and not getting a paycheck, the Republican Party is trying to force states with Democratic Governors to enact long desired Republican policy agendas, like further anti-immigrant and anti-union policies. The outfall for this mismanagement and ill will are likely to be felt for years to come.

The actions that have so badly failed the people of the United States are not just about Donald Trump, although his unique incompetence is breathtaking. His approach to addressing a crisis like this, though, is rooted as well in the agenda of the Republican Party as a whole, and has long been the dream of the right-wing billionaires who have been funding the conservative movement for the last half century, especially in the last 30 years. Charles Koch has been the leader who has organized other right-wing billionaires to support his ideological cause of undermining democracy and restraining the ability of government to act. Originally a member of the John Birch Society, Koch has funded many of the organizations that have taken over the Republican Party, remade the U.S. courts with right-wing judges (often considered unqualified by the American Bar Association), and the movements to suppress the ability for people to vote who might vote for Democratic candidates.

There are many commentaries currently available that trace the history of Koch’s influence and the “new conservative” movement. An especially revealing discussion of what the agenda includes, though, can be found in Nancy MacLean’s book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (NY: Penguin Books, 2017). MacLean traces the libertarian ideas of James Buchanan, an ultimate Nobel Prize in Economics winner, who created the theory of “public choice,” which is all about why government is the problem because it interferes with the freedom of those with wealth, conceived of as the “makers” rather than the “takers” in an economy. In her discussion, MacLean describes what the real agenda is of Charles Koch and the organizations he has funded to eliminate all government functions except police or the military and anything that encroaches on private property, especially of the very rich. The society that Koch and his followers would like to see emerge would eliminate any spending for both public health and public schools, eliminate regulations to protect the environment including water and air, and would  privatize prisons and eliminate unions. The last thing they want to see is any centralization of government authority, even in the midst of a worldwide crisis, especially if it suggests to the people in the United States that government is competent and can protect from hard times. Their nightmare is that this crisis could lead to another New Deal agenda such as grew out of the Great Depression of the 1930s under Franklin Delano Roosevelt in which government does more to protect people from harm when things get tough. The right-wing, especially Koch and others like him, have been trying for decades to end any vestiges of the New Deal policies that support a social safety net, including public health.

Just to make the point clear, I will provide a short description from MacLean’s book of how Buchanan and his followers discuss public health spending, which they see as an unnecessary and dangerous encroachment on “freedom” of the wealthy minority. MacLean quotes Tyler Cowen who became director of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, which Koch funded, as explaining “that with the ‘rewriting the social contract’ under way, people will be ‘expected to fend for themselves much more than they do now.’ And because some will flourish, he says, ‘others will fall by the wayside.’ And because ‘worthy individuals’ will manage to climb their way out of poverty, ‘that will make it easier to ignore those who are left behind.’” (MacLean, p. 212). MacLean quotes Cowen as also predicting the outcomes of their policies to be that “lower-income parts of America [will recreate] ‘a Mexico-like or Brazil-like environment’ complete with favelas like those in Rio de Janeiro. The ‘quality of water’ might not be what U.S. citizens are used to, but ‘partial shantytowns’ would satisfy the need for cheaper housing as ‘wage polarization’ grows and government shrinks.” (MacLean, p. 213) [In this accounting, the double quotation marks are from MacLean, while the single quotation marks are from Cowen.]

Specifically with regard to public health, MacLean explains: “Less well known is that these zealots do not believe that the government should be involved in trying to promote public health, period. We are not talking about subsidized hip replacements and birth control. We are talking about things like basic sanitation, something governments have committed to since the Progressive Era as the single most important measure to stop waterborne epidemics such as cholera and typhoid. The Republican majority in Congress has ‘systematically cut public health budgets that address Zika, Ebola, and other ailments,’ notes the columnist Nicholas Kristof.” (MacLean, pp. 213-214)

This agenda to eliminate spending on any social and public service, certainly including a social safety net, but also basic services like health, education, and civil and labor rights have been in the making in the Republican Party for a long time, and in their estimate, they had nearly achieved their goals. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, they do not want government to function, and they are apparently unmoved by how many are dying or how many are likely to do so. From their view, it is the weak and unworthy, so not worth the cost. Donald Trump is incompetent and immoral, but he is currently a useful instrument for this long-time agenda of the right. And Mike Pence, the U.S. Vice President, who was put in charge of the federal response to the coronavirus crisis is a protégé of Charles Koch, very much in his sphere of influence. The stakes for our democracies around the world could not be higher. They are especially high now in the U.S. Democracy is at stake, as well as the well-being and even the lives of many people who are likely to be “left behind.” This the United States now, but this is a worldwide pandemic which will get even worse once it moves more actively into the Southern Hemisphere.

Nancy DiTomaso (SASE President 1994-1995)