The pandemic is an invisible, silent, and lethal extrahuman enemy. Not only does it infect and kill people directly, but, paradoxically, the attempt to contain it via social confinement is also causing the world’s economies to collapse and destroying the lives of millions.
In the United States, the democracy with the most prosperous economy in the world, the response to the virus has been disappointing and inadequate. Its federal system, under which a considerable amount of power is allocated to states and local governments, constitutes, in itself, a serious structural limitation in terms of the national government’s ability to respond to the pandemic in a centralized, coordinated, adequate, fast and effective manner. Donald Trump’s lack of timely leadership further compounded the limitations of the federal system of government. The president ignored and minimized news reports, as well as the reports and warnings about the danger posed by the virus that his intelligence agencies presented him with in January. He described the news as a hoax, and claimed that the virus would, in any case, be easily controlled. He also accused doctors of fearmongering in an effort to sabotage his reelection.
But when the pandemic became a reality in mid-March, the Trump administration’s lack of preparation became clear, as did its delay in leading and coordinating a federal response.
Criticism from governors and mayors over the shortage of tests and medical supplies needed in hospitals grew. The stock market plunged by 30%, and the economy fell into a recession. Confusion spread, and there was no sense of any administrative strategy, uniform response, sense of urgency or common purpose.
It was only in mid-March that the president ordered voluntary social distancing, which, in view of the growing seriousness of the situation, he then extended until the end of April. He canceled flights from China and then from Europe; he imposed border closures; he established a telecommute policy for government employees; he announced that two U.S. Navy hospital ships would arrive in New York and Los Angeles; and, after insisting that it was not necessary, he activated the Defense Production Act of 1950 in order to force companies to manufacture protective medical supplies and ventilators. He also announced that the federal government would distribute available supplies. In order to address the health crisis, he enlisted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, activated a Coronavirus Task Force, and involved the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Health and Human Service, and the Defense Department. With respect to the finance sector, he engaged the Small Business Administration, the U.S. Treasury, and the Federal Reserve.
But as of April 4 (with the death toll at more than 7,000 people), the number of hospitals, doctors, nurses and technicians in the hardest hit states (New York, California, Washington, Illinois, Michigan and Louisiana) has proved insufficient. There is a scarcity of tests, beds, equipment, protective clothing (gloves, masks, gowns, etc.) and ventilators, and there is no drug or vaccine available yet. Nor has the federal government introduced a coherent and definitive policy with regard to social confinement or the distribution of treatment supplies and protective equipment.
Meanwhile, since the end of February, Trump’s Treasury secretary and leaders of the Senate and Democrat-controlled House of Representatives have been negotiating three legislative relief packages to provide medical supplies and salvage the economy. The biggest of these packages was approved at the end of March with passage of an astronomically high $2.2 million coronavirus relief bill. Trump signed it immediately.
The purpose of this massive response is to try to prevent the collapse of the economy through guarantees, subsidies, loans and other forms of relief for banks, corporations, families and individuals in order to preserve liquidity, production, employment, services and consumer spending during the economic paralysis caused by social confinement.
The legislation aims to keep small businesses, as well as the most severely affected big corporations, operating. The targeted sectors include transportation, aviation and the automobile, hotel, restaurant and tourism industries. The banking and agriculture sectors will also receive aid. In the social sector, $300 billion will be distributed to homes and individuals. This includes relief for health care insurance payments, as well as the expansion of unemployment benefits, and food and nutrition programs for children. In addition, casual workers, those who are self-employed, retirees, university students, as well as foundations and philanthropic organizations will also benefit.
Hospitals will receive subsidies and lines of credit to buy medical supplies and for payment from health care insurance providers. Pharmaceutical companies and universities will receive support in order to speed up the development of vaccines and drugs, as will companies that manufacture protective equipment and ventilators. State and local governments will receive billions of dollars in order to prevent layoffs and maintain their education, transport, health and public services, etc.
Faced with the federal government’s fragmented and slow response, governors of the most affected states have assumed responsibility for imposing social confinement policies in their jurisdictions, obtaining protective equipment, and for dealing with the avalanche of infections and deaths without necessary medical resources. Protests and requests from the governors have roused Trump from his inertia and ignorance. Some among the private sector have also joined the national effort. Several big companies (Ford Motor Co., , General Motors Co. and 3M Co., for example) have announced that they will restructure or accelerate their production capacity in order to manufacture supplies, testing kits, medication and vaccines.
It remains to be seen whether the government can implement relief and rescue efforts quickly and effectively (something which is already in doubt), and it is up to the public to remain barricaded in their homes and take all the necessary precautions, beginning with constant hand washing and social distancing in order to reduce spread until a drug or vaccine is found.