Greetings from the Age of the Virus!
First, don’t believe the crazy crackpot theories that the novel coronavirus was manufactured in a Chinese lab. It’s nonsense. But by the way Trump mentions “from China” when talking about the virus, it’s clear he’s one of those crackpots. Fuck that guy!
Second, of course, health epidemics and natural disasters—unlike wars and financial crises, for example—are not necessarily caused by humans, but it is up to humans to respond to them. Trump and other autocratic world leaders have failed to appropriately respond to this virus.
I’m over forty years old, and I can only remember two times that I’ve felt scared over diseases. The two times I have been scared over disease was, in the 1980s, during the AIDS epidemic and, now, during the spread of the novel cornonavirus and COVID-19.
The AIDS epidemic was the defining public health crisis of the 1980s. As a child of the 1980s, I was terrified of contracting HIV because it almost certainly meant it would become AIDS. And, in the 1980s, AIDS was basically a death sentence. There was no cure and whatever treatments came along weren’t all that effective. It felt like there was nothing we could do to stop it or to treat it.
One reason why HIV exploded into the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s was because then-president Ronald Reagan refused to even publicly utter the word for four years after the disease had been discovered. Republican thinking in the late 1970s and 1980s grew out of a neoliberal approach to dismantling the government, in favor of the Free Market. Think of the many ways that Reagan talked about the government, famously saying that “government is the problem” (not the solution) and that most “terrifying” words an American can hear is “I’m from the government, and I am here to help.”
Reagan also embodied the then-novel Republican approach to government: starve the beast.
Republicans began dismantling the government by defunding it. Here’s how they did it.
- Cut income taxes, especially for the wealthy and corporations.
- Use budget deficits as the rationale to cut government spending.
- With less money to do their jobs, government agencies would struggle to complete their missions and thus become ineffective.
- Repeat the cycle with more tax cuts.
This brings me to 2020. It is becoming clear that Trump’s actions to slash the government spending, including firing the CDC’s pandemic response team in 2018 to cut costs, and to start an ineffective trade war with China has made it impossible for the US to curb the spread of the coronavirus beyond Wuhan, China. John Ferguson, a molecular biologist and an expert in virology, explained that the current crisis was exacerabated by Trump and his cabinet of incompetent apparatchiks (Trump’s unique twist on “Starving the Beast”). Ferguson writes…
If a Democrat were in office – say Hillary, for example, you could be 100% assured that she would be surrounded by competent people. I suspect the virus would have been slowed substantially as compared with our current situation. In fact, if our relationship with China hadn’t been ruined by Trump, it is entirely likely that we would have had CDC personnel on the ground in China helping to contain the virus in China. We certainly would still have a pandemic response team—you know, the one that Trump fired to save a few million.
A generation after the AIDS crisis, the situation with HIV/AIDS is considerably different. Treatments are available, although the for-profit pharmaceutical industry is still gouging the price of life-saving drugs. If you can survive in the Free Market, living with HIV/AIDS is not the death sentence it was in the 1980s. It is essentially a chronic condition, not unlike diabetes. But it took long-delayed government action, by George W. Bush, no less, to finally accomplish that in the 2000s.
In recent years, we’ve had a series of different novel viruses spread. We had SARS, MERS, H1N1, Zika and Ebola. All were severe, and all were contained. As Ferguson further notes:
Do you know why you don’t hear about Zika virus any more? Because it was swiftly handled by a team of competent professionals. There was no panic. It was addressed and then it was largely over. That’s not what’s happening here.
Instead what is happening here is that we have a global pandemic that will likely cause many deaths and ruin the economy for a long time. And let us not speak of the panic. Nothing like this happened with the other recent viral epidemics. But because our federal government was screwed, starved and strangled by decades of Republican rule, culminating in Trump and his band of unfit leaders, all of us are now the ones who are totally screwed.