“I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them.”
-Donald J. Trump on public health employees
“It will soon be down to zero. . .it’s under control. . . the flu kills more. . . “
“It’s a national emergency. . . it’s war!. . . back to work at Easter!”
-Trump, Feb. 29 through March 23
Sweden: Generous Sick Leave and Unemployment
The Swedes have been hit hard by the coronavirus, but, in stark contrast to U.S. where only 12 states (all blue except one) have limited coverage, every Swedish worker has paid sick leave. It is incredibly generous: 80 percent of income for a year and then 75 percent up to 550 days.
Swedish unemployment insurance is equally generous: $962 for 52 weeks, and then $842 for the next 12 weeks. In the U.S. the weekly payments range from $823 for 30 weeks in the “People’s Republic of Massachusetts” (as some libertarians call it) to $215 for 26 weeks in “Let Them Eat Cake” Kentucky. In response to the virus, the “socialist” CARES Act will increase unemployment benefits by $600 per week for four months.
Denmark: Wages Covered 90%
In Denmark the Social Democratic government is also taking the virus very seriously. Except for health care, security, and grocery workers, all other citizens have been ordered to stay home. The government promises to pay the salaries of employees up to $4,000 per month as long as they are kept on contract. Other European nations are following suit with an 80 percent subsidy in Germany and a 67 percent guarantee in the United Kingdom.
Denmark’s Employment Minister Peter Hummelgaard quipped: “You could say it puts the old Ronald Reagan quote on its head: We are the government, and we are here to help.” The government outlays could reach 13 percent of the nation’s gross national product, Hummelgaard says that it is worth it to save the Danish economy.
Every person in Europe (including refugees) also has health care coverage, just as those do, thanks to Republican Mitt Romney, in the “socialist” Bay State. The U.S. government will now pay for virus testing, but those without health insurance or underinsured (87 million) will be left with any hospital bills. Americans could also draw on their vacation leave, but the average is only 14 days as opposed to the 41 days that Swedes enjoy.
Hospital Beds: U.S. 32th out of 40 Nations
Also crucial for handling pandemics are available hospital beds. For the top four countries the number per 1,000 is as follows: Japan (13), South Korea (12), Germany (8), and Austria (7). The average for 25 European countries is 4.8, and even Greece (4.2), Portugal (3.4), Italy (3.2), and Spain (3) and have more than the U.S. (2.8). The U.S. ranks 32nd out of 40 nations.
In 2018, 59 percent American hospitals were for-profit private enterprises, which do not build for excess capacity, as opposed to the large number of the world’s public hospitals, which are not driven by the profit motive and the short term, but for the long haul. America’s private hospitals are one of the reasons why our health care costs are on average twice as much as the countries above.
Public Health Ranking: Idaho 40th out of 50 States
I could not find international ranking for public health, but my reading indicates that Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea have responded effectively. A survey of the states revealed that California, New York, and New Jersey were ranked at the top with Utah the only red state in the top ten. Washington stands at 10th, but, sadly, Idaho was ranked 40th in this category.
CDC Botches Test Kits
Trump has called for major cuts in the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the National Institute for Health, and U.S. contributions to the World Health Organization (WHO). (He now wants to cut off all funds to WHO completely, although his CDC director opposes that move.) In 2010 the budget for the CDC was $12.7 billion in current dollars, but it has now been reduced to $8 billion.
By the end of February WHO had sent coronavirus testing kits to 60 countries, but the new CDC director Robert Redfield decided that they would produce its own instead. Instead of requesting all available private companies to compete, as South Korean health officials did, Redfield chose, against the urging of state and local officials, to test only one option. It failed the necessary tests, and this set back the release of viable kits for weeks.
Test Shortage Delays Opening of Economy
On March 6 Trump declared that “anybody that wants a test can get a test,” but, six weeks later, there is still a dire shortage of them. Our testing rate is lower than Iran’s, while Germany’s is four times greater than ours.
Now that tests are available, our infection rate has gone up 33 percent, the highest the world. In some places, however, even those with symptoms cannot get a test. Even worse is the fact that the number of tests analyzed in American labs went down 30 percent in early April.
U.S. Way Behind in Tracing and Quarantine
East Asian countries and some European countries are not only doing comprehensive testing, but also tracing the contacts of those infected, and then strict quarantine. Under the administration’s new plan for opening the economy, tracing contacts is required, but we do not have the infrastructure or personnel to so this.
Vermont health officials are confident that they can complete contact tracing. Their colleagues in Connecticut say that they are “overwhelmed,” and shortage of personnel in Louisiana and New York have forced those states to trace only in New Orleans and New York’s health care workers. Kenneth Castro, public health professor at Emory University says that
“identify and contain is better than having society shutdown,” but Trump’s delay and incompetence have made that impossible.
Trump Transition Team Ignores Warnings
In early January 2017, Obama officials briefed the Trump transition team on the possibility of a novel virus spreading through Asia and then threatening the rest of the world. They warned that “this could be the worst influenza pandemic since 1918.” They apprized the team of the possibility that there would be severe shortage of hospital beds and essential medical equipment. The Obama officials later found their hand-outs in the trash.
John Bolton Closes Health Security Unit
In 2018 the Trump administration, on the advice of then National Security Director John Bolton, dissolved the Global Health Security and Biodefence unit, and its former senior director Beth Cameron declared that this left “the country less prepared for pandemics like COVID-19.” This office was housed within the National Security Agency, and it was set up by the Obama administration to deal with the Ebola, H1N1, and any future viruses.
Obama Acted Properly on Swine Flu
There is misinformation in the right-wing media about Obama’s response to the H1N1 virus, commonly known as the “swine flu.” Here is the Politifact correction on the matter: “The Obama administration declared H1N1 a public health emergency six weeks before WHO declared it a pandemic. No H1N1 deaths had yet been recorded in the United States. Six months after that initial declaration, when more than 1,000 deaths had occurred, Obama himself declared H1N1 a national emergency.”
Inadequate Response to “Crimson Contagion”
From January to August of 2019 the Department of Health and Human Services ran simulations on the possibility of a deadly flu epidemic originating in Chicago. Within 47 days, the scenario, code-named “Crimson Contagion,” predicted 110 million infections and 586,000 deaths in the U.S. alone.
When asked about the draft report of the simulation, released on October 19, the White House, after explaining its totally inadequate response, also stated, falsely of course, that the simulation did not apply to COVID-19. In light of this report, Trump’s claim that “nobody knew there would be a pandemic of this proportion” is obviously a lie. On April 16, Trump complained: “Why didn’t people warn us about this?” His people did indeed alert him.
East Asian Nations Got It Right
The democratic nations of East Asia-Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea-have had the greatest success against this virus. South Korea and the U.S. reported their first case on the same day, but South Koreans immediately instructed its medical labs to come up with test kits, and they and their neighbors were the first to conduct drive-up testing, contact tracing, and strict quarantine.
Realizing that they already had “community spread” (especially in one evangelical church), the South Koreans did not ban in-coming flights (but they did screen passengers) nor they did lock down their cities. South Korea’s fatality rate has stabilized at 2.1 percent but ours has risen to 5.2 percent and we are still counting the dead.
Trump’s China Travel Ban Leaked Like a Sieve
When asked about Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, the most common response from his supporters is that he shut down travel from China. This ban did not cover the thousands of people arriving indirectly from China. Genetic testing of the virus on the East Coast revealed that it had come via Europe. Even those arriving directly after the ban, such as Andrew Wu landing in LAX, said: “I was surprised at how lax the whole process was.”
After a meticulous analysis of flight data, the The New York Times (4/4) reported that since January 1st of this year, “at least 430,000 people have arrived in the United States on direct flights from China, including nearly 40,000 in the two months after President Trump imposed restrictions on such travel.” Before that time 4,000 passengers arrived from Wuhan without any screening, and even after the travel ban, procedures were described as “spotty.”
Libertarians use the words “public” and “government” as swear words, but private efforts and individual charity are obviously not enough. We all remember Grover Norquist, who once wished that the federal government be so small that it could be “drowned in a bathtub.” I shudder to think where we would be today if libertarians had their way.
Nick Gier of Moscow taught philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. His columns on the Middle Way between communism and capitalism can be read as pdfs at www.tomandrodna.com/Nick_Gier/MiddleWay.pdf. Please report broken links. Email him at ngier006∂gmail.com.