America Thriving but Vulnerable against the Pandemic




After betting on the market and weakening social security systems, Trump faces the challenge of the coronavirus with part of his population losing their incomes and having no adequate health insurance.

“Under regular circumstances, one could expect the United States to take the lead during this global pandemic. After all, America is the world’s largest economy. But these are not regular circumstances and America is not fit to take that role,” says columnist Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue and U.S. Latin America relationship expert. According to Shifter, this crisis exposes the extreme vulnerability of the United States, now struggling to control a devastating situation. He notes that economic and social fragility are not new, but the current administration, defined by Shifter as “chaotic and incompetent,” has exacerbated it.*

The global pandemic, which has quarantined most of the world’s population, arrived in the United States and cast its divisions into sharp relief. If we take a closer look, we find that America has two sides. One side shows many years of economic growth and rising financial markets, along with very low unemployment rates. The other side shows a lack of basic welfare policy protection (such as health care), as well as poverty and income inequality rates similar to those found in Latin America (and worse than those found in Argentina), according to the World Bank. Big market, small state.

Accordingly, this global public health crisis is hitting the United States where it hurts the most: its pocket. The virus is attacking America directly and indirectly. Directly, because of a nonexistent universal health care system. Indirectly, because of its effects on the economy. Work (good or bad) is the only thing that supports the population in a nonwelfare state. In part, this is why the state of the economy is the best indicator of who will win the presidential election. This idea is essential for understanding the following decisions Donald Trump will make regarding the virus.

The Health Care Debate

In the United States, health care is not a right. The government does not grant universal health care to its citizens. Nor does the private sector. Currently, 10% of Americans have no health insurance and it is impossible for them to use a public hospital.

Health care has been one of the central issues in recent American politics. Ten years ago, former President Barack Obama signed a health care law informally known as “Obamacare.” This bill, the flagship achievement of his administration, radically changed the relationship Americans had with health care.

The good news is that health care coverage grew (in particular for the most vulnerable) and there was a qualitative change in the type of care. From 2010 until the present, 20 million people have obtained health care plans. The system not only provides care to those with preexisting conditions (something that had been denied or cost a ridiculous amount), but it also provides preventive interventions for citizens who could become ill without these plans. The bad news is that access to health care continues to be extremely expensive. Most of the population is barely able to pay for insurance, and live with the fear of becoming ill and not being able to pay for treatment and medication.

The worst part of this is that health care is still not universal. Although most Republican politicians believe that there is no such thing as a right to health care, the Democrats who propose a truly universal health care system are labeled as socialists. This fight has taken place in court, in each of the states and in television debates. Meanwhile, in reality, the rate of coverage fell again in 2018 for the first time since “Obamacare” was passed. This is because of the efforts of the Trump administration, which could not abolish the act, but insisted on undermining it.

Until now. Confronted with this pandemic, the government is considering the possibility of reopening enrollment in the program for those who have no insurance. It is possible that the government is asking itself the obvious questions: What will Americans without insurance do when they get infected? And what about those who have insurance, but who know that they will not be able to afford the treatment costs? How many will they infect if they receive no medical attention? The pandemic exposes health care as it really is: a public matter.

The lack of health care coverage is not an exception in a country that is not a welfare state. There are no social policies, no public policies; there is, in short, no protection against the market. But there is, of course, a market. Even though it is not written anywhere, the only thing that the United States promises its citizens is a thriving economy and jobs. Since the Great Depression, unemployment rates have been lower than 10% and, before the pandemic, they were lower than 4%, the lowest in 50 years.

Growing Inequality

Work serves both real and symbolic functions. The real function is that it gives us income and, in a system that tells you that “you owe, therefore you are,” it allows for the wheels to keep turning. The symbolic function is that work is the condition for seeking the ever mythical American dream, which serves as the lid on a pressure cooker that has been boiling for years due to growing income inequality and discrimination. Nowadays, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the richest 20% of Americans receive more than half of the total income (this number has been growing for 50 years) and almost 20% of Americans live in poverty.

But this pressure cooker might explode. Some 44% of workers have low income jobs and at least 5% of people who claim to have a job are considered to be living in poverty. How do these workers live? They manage to survive by having two jobs and asking friends and family for help. They go into debt, sharing costs and suffering. That is, with no ability to save money in anticipation of a crisis like the current one.

The Economy in Check

Now the pandemic threatens the market. What will happen if unemployment grows?

Maybe this is the question that moved Trump to say, against the recommendation of the scientific community, that the United States would end the quarantine in the first days of April. It just so happens that the economy is of great importance in determining who wins a presidential election, an election which will take place this November. But there is a catch: The economy, as almost everything in this country, is assessed differently depending on the party with which one identifies. Before the public health crisis, 90% of Republican voters believed that the economy was good, while only 40% of Democratic voters believed so. The coronavirus may put an end to, or at least reduce, such polarization. Although, by the end of February, almost 40% of Republicans and fewer than 5% of Democrats claimed not to be worried about the virus, now fewer than 25% of Republicans and 3% of Democrats claim not to be worried.

Trump is maintaining a delicate balance. On the one hand, he seeks to maintain public health care measures at the risk of losing the election because of a decadent economy, the perception of which may be affected by the pandemic. On the other hand, he seeks to revive the economy at the cost of ending the quarantine too soon, with the prospect of thousands of Americans, unprotected for years, becoming infected. Which is the cure? First and foremost, more market.

Stabilization Plan

This week, the president managed to sign a $2 trillion economic stabilization bill. The plan addresses citizens, the health care system and business. The plan involves a direct, one-time payment to low income citizens and the extension of very limited unemployment compensation. Some $100,000 million is designated for the health care system. There are two provision for business: loans for small businesses, and a $500 billion bailout for large companies, including airlines and hotels.

Americans, both politicians and citizens, tend to read the present through the lens of their founding laws: The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It is hard to find a television debate, a lecture on politics or public opinion where these texts, and their interpretation is not present. So, I will do the same.

The Declaration of Independence, a wonderful document, starts by saying, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is possible, although unlikely, that the Creator gave those rights to Americans. It is less likely, and easier to verify, that the system under which Americans live helps them to maintain those rights.

*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, this quoted remark could not be independently verified.

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