Everything worries us in these desperate coronaviral days of ours. If, however, one thing should have set off alarms everywhere (and didn't), it was the moment in mid-March when, having dismissed the Covid-19 virus as the Democrats' "new hoax" or the equivalent of the "common flu," a disease likely to be gone by April, Donald Trump suddenly declared himself a "wartime president." Let's face it, given the history of America's wars in this century, however grand the title may have sounded to him, the rest of us should have considered it the kiss of death. In twenty-first-century Washington, where wars are never won but go on forever (the worst possible future in coronavirus terms), could there be a more dangerous image to invoke?
And you won't be surprised to know that it only got worse thereafter. By early April, for instance, Surgeon General Jerome Adams was calling the rapid spread of Covid-19 "our Pearl Harbor moment... our 9/11 moment." Uh-oh. Of course, it couldn't be more obvious that no one in Washington these days is fighting World War II. Unlike that post-Pearl Harbor moment, this is not a mobilizing but an utterly demobilizing time (as is necessary in a social-distancing nation). In fact, as Catherine Lutz and Neta Crawford of Brown University's Costs of War Project bluntly put it recently, the U.S. military and those forever wars of theirs -- or rather, the $1.2 trillion that now goes yearly into the national security state and the trillions of dollars that have been thrown away on wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere since 9/11 -- provide at least part of the explanation for why so little money has been devoted in these years to what really imperils us most. It was spent on that military and those wars, not the CDC or the health of Americans.
Today, TomDispatch regular Rajan Menon reviews this grim, demobilizing "wartime" moment and considers why it's likely to prove the ultimate stress test for the rest of us, and what the future of this stressed-out country may hold. Tom
The Ultimate Stress Test
The American World That Covid-19 Reveals
By Rajan Menon
The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV-2) virus, which causes Covid-19, seemed to emerge from deepest history, from the Black Death of the 14th century and the "Spanish Flu" of 1918. In just months, it has infected more than 1.5 million people and claimed more than 88,000 lives. The virus continues to spread almost everywhere. In no time at all, it's shattered the global economy, sent it tumbling toward a deep recession (possibly even a depression), and left much of a planet locked indoors. Think of it as a gigantic stress test.
Doctors use stress tests to assess the physical fitness of patients. Governments use them to see whether banks have enough cash in reserve to honor their obligations to depositors and creditors in economic crises. The International Monetary Fund conducts stress tests on national financial systems. Now, like several other countries, notably Italy and Spain, the United States faces a different, far tougher stress test imposed by Covid-19. The early results are alarming.
Since the first infection in the U.S. came to light in the state of Washington on January 20th, the disease has spread across the country at a furious pace. Hospitals, especially in New York City, have been deluged and are already at the breaking point. And things will get worse -- and not just in New York. Yet the most basic necessities -- protective masks, gowns, rubber gloves, and ventilators -- are so scarce that they are being reused, further increasing the risk to healthcare workers, some of whom have already contracted Covid-19 from patients. The experiences of China, Italy, and other countries suggest that the disease will take the lives of many of these brave people; indeed, some here have already paid the ultimate price.
And this pandemic will subject our political system, economy, and society to a set of stress tests into the distant future.
The "Wartime President"
By mid-January, the news from China made it obvious that the virus would spread across borders and soon reach the United States. The sheer volume of travel between the two countries should have made that reality all too obvious. Nearly three million Chinese visitors came to this country in 2018 and 2.5 million Americans, counting only tourists, traveled to China. In fact, we now know that, in the weeks after Covid-19 was disclosed in Wuhan, China, more than 430,000 people flew here from that country, thousands of them from Wuhan itself -- and this continued even after Donald Trump put his much-vaunted travel measures in place. ("I do think we were very early, but I also think that we were very smart, because we stopped China," he nonetheless claimed.)
In addition, President Trump and his team remained unruffled, never mind that the country wasn't remotely prepared for what was clearly coming. Despite secret intelligence reports as early as January warning that Chinese leaders were understating the coronavirus threat's severity, the administration failed to develop any kind of emergency plan to prepare for the pandemic.
That proved to be a monumental blunder. China confirmed its first coronavirus fatality on January 11th. An infection was first reported in Washington state barely a week later. More than a month after that, at a February 26th press conference, President Trump nonetheless dismissed the seriousness of the disease, noting that seasonal flu kills as many as 69,000 in the U.S. annually. He failed to mention that the virus may have a fatality rate up to 10 times higher than the flu and that a Covid-19 vaccine was nowhere in sight. Only 15 infections had been reported here, he claimed breezily, and "when you have fifteen people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that's a pretty good job we've done."
Close to zero? By mid-March, infections had risen to 1,200 (which soon would prove a drop in the pandemic bucket as "America First" acquired a new meaning). Yet the president called that number inconsequential. Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Rush Limbaugh did him one better: "Yeah, I'm dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks." He accused the media of exaggerating "in an effort to get Trump."
True to form, the president was quick to personalize the pandemic. He preened about how scientific experts marveled at his grasp of the complex details of virology and the way supposedly awestruck doctors asked, "How do you know so much?" The president's self-effacing answer: natural ability, possibly even a genetically-derived aptitude, thanks to "a great, super-genius uncle" who'd worked at MIT.
He declared himself a "wartime president," despite the lack of any evident strategy to vanquish this particular foe. His response when governors of hard-hit states began pleading for urgent help from the federal government: "Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment -- try getting it yourselves." The governors, he groused, were "complainers," who should have stockpiled what they were now begging for. Thin-skinned as ever, he told Vice President Mike Pence that those like Governor Gretchen Whitmer, "the woman from Michigan," who weren't appreciative enough of his help didn't even deserve to have their phone calls returned, at least by him. Inevitably, he had a Limbaugh-like conspiracy theory ready: fear-mongering Democrats were exploiting the Covid crisis to bash him. The virus, he said during a campaign rally -- yes, he was still holding them in late February -- was their "new hoax." Fox News and the president's base duly ran with this theme.
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