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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 7/30/20

Noam Chomsky: Decades of "the Neoliberal Plague" Left U.S. Unprepared for COVID-19 Outbreak

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As the U.S. coronavirus death toll tops 150,000, we spend the hour with world-renowned political dissident, linguist and author Noam Chomsky, who says decades of neoliberal policies that shredded the social safety net and public institutions left the country ill-prepared for a major health crisis. "We should understand the roots of this pandemic," he says.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I'm Amy Goodman.

The U.S. coronavirus death toll topped 150,000 on Wednesday, the highest of any nation by far. The hardest hit states per capita are Florida, Louisiana, Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama, Nevada, South Carolina, Texas, Idaho, Tennessee and Georgia, a list that includes all seven of the original Confederate states.

Today we talk about COVID and so much more as we spend the hour with Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned political dissident, linguist and author, Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught for more than 50 years, now laureate professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Arizona. Author of more than 100 books. Professor Chomsky spoke with Democracy Now!'s Nermeen Shaikh and I on Thursday, from his home in Tucson, Arizona about the coronavirus crisis.

NOAM CHOMSKY We should understand the roots of this pandemic. If we do not understand the roots and extirpate them, there is going to be another and worse one coming. So far we have been kind of lucky. The coronavirus, pandemics, epidemics are very serious, and there are many possibilities. So far, all the ones that have happened in the last 10 or 15 years, either the virus has been very deadly but not very contagious, like Ebola, or very contagious but not very deadly, like COVID-19. What happens when the next one comes along that is both very contagious and very deadly? We are in deep trouble. Deep. Much worse than this. Much worse than the so-called "Spanish flu," which ought to be called the Kansas flu by Trump's logic. It originated in Kansas the century ago. We may be facing something much worse than that.

There are ways of dealing with it. After the SARS epidemic in 2003, scientists knew that another one is very likely. They warned against it. They presented policies that could be carried out. They weren't implemented, in part because of deep institutional pathologies. The drug companies who are the obvious candidates for dealing with it can't, by straight capitalist logic. You don't spend money to try to prevent a catastrophe 10 years from now. What you do is try to make money tomorrow. That is the logic of the system. So the pharmaceutical companies were ruled out by capitalist logic.

The government could step in. The government, in any event, does most of the basic research for vaccines and drugs, almost all of them. So they could have stepped in, create laboratories, and plenty of unlimited resources. But they are blocked by the neoliberal plague. Remember Ronald Reagan -- that government is the problem, not the solution, which means we have to take decision-making and action out of the hands of government, which has a flaw; it's somewhat responsive to the population. We have to shift it to unaccountable, private tyrannies, which are totally unaccountable to the population. That is the meaning of Reagan's slogan. That is the fundamental principle of neoliberalism. We've been suffering -- the world has been suffering from it for 40 years, except for the tiny percentage who have become super rich and extremely powerful. Well, that blocks the government.

Nevertheless, there were things that the government could do. When the Obama administration took office, in the first few days, Obama called the presidential scientific advisory board, which had been established by George H.W. Bush, the first Bush, who had some respect for science. Obama called it. He requested that they put together a pandemic reaction program, a way to deal with a pandemic if it comes. They came up with a report a couple weeks later. It was implemented. It was in place until January 2017.

Trump came into office, the first few days, dismantled the whole system. Nothing. That's part of the general wrecking ball. "We have to destroy everything that Obama did. We have to wreck everything." Because it is the only way to look like you are doing something. Happening all over. So that went.

There were programs of U.S. scientists working in China with Chinese colleagues to try to detect and identify coronaviruses. Most of them are deep in caves. It's very dangerous work. Some have been killed, Chinese scientists. But they were finding them and identifying them and testing them. The Wuhan Institute of Virology is the main center for investigating this. Trump canceled the program.

There were simulations run of a pandemic as late as October 2019 warning of what would happen. No attention. The Trump administration isn't interested. So when the epidemic finally hit, the United States was singularly unprepared. After that comes a series of grotesque inactions and actions. For a couple of months, Trump refused to admit that it was happening.

Other countries were doing things. In Asia, Oceania, Australia, New Zealand, they were reacting. Some of it, South Korea, which was one of the first places hit, never had to go to a lockdown because they dealt with it rationally. They identified the places that were hot spots, controlled them, tested, traced people for contacts. Countries pretty much functioned. Vietnam has reported zero deaths, and apparently that is taken quite seriously by leading U.S. specialists. The Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, which monitors the international situation, records zero deaths from Vietnam, which has a 1,400-mile border with China. South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia are doing quite well. And Europe, they delayed in quite a way, but they did finally act. As you mentioned, the curve has sharply reduced since March for most of Europe. Some of them, like Norway, Germany, doing quite well in this respect. People are traveling through southern Italy almost like normal.

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