Let me do something I've seldom done in one of these introductions and quote at length from a book. In this case, the initial paragraph of the preface to Nina Burleigh's striking new work, Virus: Vaccinations, the CDC, and the Hijacking of America's Response to the Pandemic:
"One of my first instincts in the surreal early days of lockdown in March 2020 was to hunt down my dog-eared, yellowed, graduate school paperback copy of Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year. Glued to it for long hours that week" I kept being struck by how little has changed in the three and a half centuries since the epidemic that decimated London in the 1660s. Everything, from the nature of and response to the early rumors to the growing sense of unease and the closing of houses of entertainment, from the quack cures and conspiracy theories to the rich fleeing the city and the poor dying in it, from mental health breaking down and mad, cooped-up people breaking free of quarantine and roaming the streets in violation of curfews and sanitary rules all of it. Just like us. How little the human race has changed since those days without plumbing, electricity, jets, or antibiotics."
Or the focus of her book without successful vaccines. And let me add one more subject that Burleigh deals with in today's piece. The rich undoubtedly profited once upon a (pandemic) time, too, just as they have in our Covid-19 year-plus. After all, according to figures released in February by the Institute of Policy Studies and Americans for Tax Fairness, American billionaires saw their wealth surge by $1.3 trillion dollars in the pandemic months between March 2020 and February 2021, an increase of 44%. (According to Oxfam, between March and December 2020, the billionaires of the world, not just the United States, made an extra $3.9 trillion.)
That, at least, has gotten some attention. Far less attention has been paid to those Burleigh focuses on today who profited off the pandemic quite directly, thanks to the Trump administration. In April, Burleigh wrote a piece for TomDispatch called "The Great Forgetting: Why We Forget Epidemics and Why This One Must Be Remembered." Now, she returns with part two on how quickly we've forgotten (or perhaps never even noticed) the corporate profiteers linked to Trump's crew in this pandemic period. Tom
Swept into a Covid Hell of Profits
The Great Forgetting, Part 2
Now that we're all unmasking and the economy seems set to roar into the 2020s, what will we remember about how disastrously, how malignantly, the Trump administration behaved as the pandemic took hold? And will anyone be held to account for it?
The instinct to forget pandemics, as I've pointed out when it came to the 1918 "Spanish flu," has historically been strong indeed. In these years, the urge to forget official malfeasance and move on has, it turns out, been at least as strong. Washington's failure to investigate and bring to account those who led the nation and ultimately the world into the folly of the Iraq War may be the most egregious recent example of this.
In the end, that's why I wrote my new book Virus to memorialize a clear and accessible historical record of the deliberate and deadly decision-making that swept us all into a kind of hell. I had the urge to try to stop what happened to us from being instantly buried in the next round of daily reporting or, as appears likely now, relegated to the occasional voluminous government or foundation report on how to do things better.
In the early months of 2020, as rumors of distant death morphed into announcements of an imminent pandemic, followed by a patchwork of state and local lockdowns, most Americans were too stunned by daily events to absorb the bigger picture. Memories of those days still click by like surreal snapshots: prepper shopping, toilet-paper hoarders, forklifts moving bodies into refrigerated trucks, and a capricious leader on TV night after endless night talking about quack cures, his own ratings, and how he "liked the numbers low." Meanwhile, he left desperate states to compete with each other for badly needed protective gear.
What looked like chaos or ad hoc decision-making by an improbably elected fraudster president was, in fact, deeply rooted in ideology; specifically, in the belief that the job of the government was neither to exercise leadership, nor activate government agencies to assist the American people. It was to promote private industry and its profits as the solution to anything and everything pandemic.
That ideology led to profiteering, politicized science, and mass death. Now, as the pandemic wanes (at least for the time being, though not necessarily for the unvaccinated) in this country, it deserves an investigation. Somewhere between almost 600,000 and more than 900,000 Americans have died so far from Covid-19, a significant number of those deaths unnecessary, as even the former administration's medical expert, Dr Deborah Birx, has said.
The virus arrived in America after the Trump administration steered by right-wing Heritage Foundation policy wonks and their donor-class comrades had already laid waste to key agencies like Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Disease Control. Their instant response to the pandemic was to similarly sideline government emergency-management experts, put inexperienced 20-something volunteers in charge of finding and distributing protective gear, and circulate lists of possible suppliers one of whom, typically enough, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with no medical contracting experience, snagged a cool $86-million contract from the state of New York for ventilators he would never deliver.
While most of the country hunkered down in a state of stunned paralysis, a faction of Trumpworld recognized the pandemic not for what it took away human lives and livelihoods but for what it offered. The chaos of the moment allowed them to road-test their dream system, to prove once and for all that the forces of supply and demand, the instinct to make a buck, could do a better job managing a natural disaster than the government of the United States and its bureaucrats.
Is any of this likely to be investigated? Will anyone be held accountable for what appears to have been a response deliberately mismanaged by religious zealots and crony capitalists, crews equally cynical about expertise, science, and the government's ability to prevent or ameliorate disaster?
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