A Mass Murdering Death Cult
A likely apocryphal quote attributed to Joseph Stalin, one of the greatest mass murderers of the 20th century, is “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic”. While nowhere near on the scale of Stalin’s crimes, Donald Trump has already provoked the tragedy and both he and the Republican party continue to create the statistics.
The tragedy, of course, is the man in Arizona who ingested chloroquine phosphate and died after Donald Trump indicated the drug was a probable cure for COVID-19. Said the man’s wife, who only survived because she threw up most of what she had ingested, “Trump kept saying it was basically pretty much a cure”.
While that tragedy can directly be linked to the President’s willful misinformation and lies, the statistics about avoidable deaths will be harder to directly correlate with the President’s and the GOP’s inept, inadequate, and ignorant response to this pandemic. But we know that number of preventable deaths will at minimum be in the hundreds, probably in the thousands, and potentially in the millions.
The seeds for our government’s lack of preparedness for this altogether predictable natural biological attack were planted early on in the Trump administration, with the GOP’s help. Trump’s team ignored the Obama administration’s presentation on pandemic preparedness during the transition. The Trump administration, along with the GOP Congress, cut the CDC’s budget for global pandemic preparedness by 80%. The administration phased out the national security teams focused animal viruses triggering global pandemics. The White House’s top pandemic adviser, the NSC’s director of medical and biodefense preparedness, and the head of the global health security team were all forced out. In 2018, the administration also proposed a 40% cut for the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps which deploys uniformed public health professionals in disasters and outbreaks of disease. In July 2019, the Trump administration eliminated the position of a CDC medical epidemiologist embedded in the Chinese disease control agency, a position that was designed to alert us to disease outbreaks in China. In addition, the CDC presence in China shrank by nearly 70%, leaving just 14 staffers. Last October, Trump’s own HHS released a report summarizing a pandemic simulation that highlighted “just how underfunded, underprepared and uncoordinated the federal government would be for a life-or-death battle with a virus for which no treatment existed”. It also showed that the US “did not have the means to quickly manufacture more essential medical equipment, supplies and medicines, from antiviral medications to needles, syringes, N95 respirators and ventilators”. That report was ignored. All this was done, mind you, while Trump and the Republicans were passing what will be a $2 trillion tax cut for corporations while also increasing our defense budget.
As intelligence officials were warning in late January that COVID-19 had the potential to become a worldwide pandemic, Trump was still treating it as a “hoax” and telling us all he “had it totally under control”, rather than beginning to ramp up testing and stockpile and/or produce the medical supplies many public health experts were already predicting would be necessary. The one action Trump took, barring entry of foreign nationals who had been in China in the prior 14 days, occurred after most airlines had already suspended flights from China and subjected those returning US citizens who were exempt from the ban to so-called “enhanced screening” that was often minimal at best. In addition, Trump and his team apparently simply ignored the NSC’s playbook on how to respond to a pandemic. Even a minimal adherence to that document would have ramped up the testing, medical supplies, and financial resources needed to deal with the crisis.
As Trump dithered and lied, the next, critical failure in our pandemic response occurred. For whatever reason, the CDC decided to make their own coronavirus test kit rather than rely on the test already being provided by the World Health Organization. But the agency somehow botched the testing kits, making the kits received by states utterly useless. At the same time, the FDA was denying requests from private labs to do their own testing. Because of that failure, only limited testing was available throughout most of February and, because of the testing scarcity, only those who had traveled internationally or been directly exposed to an infected person could get tested. This lack of testing basically nullified all the other pandemic mitigation procedures because the universe and spread of infection was impossible to track. Without adequate testing, there was no way to control the virus the way that South Korea and China, after finally confronting the epidemic, were able to. Meanwhile, Trump resorted to propaganda and lies, saying that it was “very much under control” and “Looks like by April… it miraculously goes away”. Later in the month, he began saying a vaccine would be available “very quickly”, again a total lie. By the last day of February, we began counting the dead.
Testing delays and administration lies still hamper our response to this pandemic. Mike Pence pledged that there would be one million tests available by March 6th. That deadline came and went. On March 10, Pence claimed there would be 4 million more tests available in addition to the prior million that had apparently not been produced. Yesterday, Pence admitted that only 500,000 tests had actually been completed, all the while presenting it as an enormous success. Worse, it appears that labs can not handle the number of tests that need to be done. People are reporting waits as long as 12 days to get results, almost equivalent to the amount of time it takes an infected person to show symptoms. Meanwhile, Pence’s spin mirrored Trump’s own propaganda throughout the month, claiming that “Anybody that wants a test can get a test”. The lack of adequate testing has left every governor, every mayor, every hospital, every doctor, every nurse essentially flying blind as the pandemic rages.
We have now moved on to the next phase of the pandemic, where the infections have already occurred and the medical system will begin to be overwhelmed, as has already occurred in a number of locations. While adequate testing is still a need, the immediate crisis is in medical supplies, PPEs, N95 masks, regular surgical masks, and ventilators. The Trump administration has had two months to prepare for this foreseeable onslaught and they have done virtually nothing. Trump continually refused to invoke the Defense Procurement Act which would allow the government to force industry to retool factories and supply chains to provide this necessary equipment. Because of that, and perhaps because his plutocratic supporters make more money this way, he has created a situation where the federal government, individual states, and foreign sources are all competing with each other to obtain the same critical resources, thereby driving up the prices for those resources.
Worse, it appears that Trump is intent on using federal aid for his own personal political interests, just as he did in Puerto Rico. Florida, a critical swing state whose governor refused to close the beaches during spring break, received its full request for PPE from the national stockpile while New Jersey received just 9% of its request and New York City, the epidemic’s new epicenter, received just 78,000 of the 2.2 million N95 masks requested. Trump has openly stated that if the governors want federal help, “they have to treat us well”. He further suggested that he might not approve a federal disaster declaration asked for by the state of Michigan because Governor Whitmer criticized the federal response. In addition, Whitmer has stated that “What I’ve gotten back is that vendors with whom we’ve procured contracts — They’re being told not to send stuff to Michigan”. Trump himself admitted, “I say Mike [Pence], don’t call the governor of Washington; you’re wasting your time with him. Don’t call the woman in Michigan…If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.” Trump declared that he did not “believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators” while killing an apparent deal with GM to produce ventilators because of the cost and concern that they might produce too many ventilators creating an expensive surplus. Hours later, apparently after getting into a tiff with GM’s President, Trump ordered GM to produce the ventilators while promising 100,000 ventilators will be available in 100 days.
The Trump administration’s incompetence in dealing with the pandemic is further complicated by the destruction of the administrative state that has occurred over the last three years. Nearly one third of the top positions at the Department of Homeland Security are either vacant or are filled by acting officials who often have little experience with the agency they control. Leaders at the agency were apparently relying on an updating map provided by Johns Hopkins to track the spread of the virus. They were also completely ignorant about the critical medical resources currently available. CBP apparently had a stockpile of 1.5 million N95 masks but DHS has dithered in determining where they should be distributed. The Department of Veterans Affairs apparently made no preparation for the influx of patients it is now receiving and has now resorted to scrambling for supplies on Amazon. The new head of the agency recently fired his second in command, who had experience in disaster preparedness and relief, and the head of emergency preparedness retired and has not been replaced. The VA is legally designated as a backup medical system in a time of national crisis yet the Department recently deleted that particular mission statement from its web site.
In particular, the lack of masks and PPEs is spreading the disease through the medical and first responder ranks at an alarming rate. Almost 20% of New York City’s ambulance corps has become infected with the virus. Infections among medical personnel may soon create a shortage of doctors and nurses. In Tennessee, the Department of Health is advising medical staff that do not have any more protective gowns or masks to “wear a garbage bag or wrap a diaper around their face”.
As Trump’s happy talk about the virus continued, red state governors, with the remarkable exception of Mike Dewine in Ohio, were reluctant to contradict the President and put the necessary restrictive measures in place, even after the errors in New York showed what delay could look like. As mentioned above, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis let the spring breakers party on without restriction. Those visitors then scattered literally across the US and the world, potentially spreading the virus with them. Alabama’s governor is refusing to issue an order to shelter in place even though the state as seeing as many new cases as New York as a percentage of population. Mississippi’s Governor actually overrode controls put in place by local officials in the state, as well as increasing the types of businesses deemed essential, including gun stores. The city of Greenville, South Carolina, had to rescind its local stay at home ordinance because the State Attorney General ruled that the Governor’s orders to “to see as many people working” as possible took precedence.
As the medical crisis began to rage across the country, the economic crisis began. As the economy cratered, Trump’s plutocratic base rebelled, demanding that others must die to protect their money. They pressed Trump to keep the economy running even at the cost of human lives. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page kicked things off, writing, “But no society can safeguard public health for long at the cost of its overall economic health…America urgently needs a pandemic strategy that is more economically and socially sustainable than the current national lockdown”. Fox News and right wing nut-jobs like Glenn Beck picked things up from there, with Beck saying nonsensically, “Even if we [older Americans] all get sick, I would rather die than kill the country”. Tom Galisano, chairman of Paychex, said, “The damages of keeping the economy closed as it is could be worse than losing a few more people”. Dick Kovacevich, the former head of the criminal organization called Wells Fargo, declared, “We’ll gradually bring those people back and see what happens, Some of them will get sick, some may even die, I don’t know”. The Lieutenant Governor of Texas added his two cents, telling Tucker Carlson “As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?…If that is the exchange, I’m all in”.
Trump responded in kind, tweeting “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF” and saying he wanted to open the country back up by Easter. Studies show that such an act would dramatically increase the number of infections and consequently the number of deaths, with some models suggesting hundreds of thousands of additional deaths. As Adam Serwer correctly notes, “When they say they’re willing to die for the economy, what they really mean is they’re willing to let you die for the economy. That’s what they mean.” Dick Kovacevich made that crystal clear when he talked about “those people”.
The existing pathologies of the Republican party only contribute to the disaster we are facing. Trump’s budget chief is still supporting cutting the CDC budget by 15% as the pandemic sweeps the country. The administration is still trying to remove over 700,000 people from eligibility for food stamps. The administration is still in court trying to get the ACA ruled unconstitutional and Trump has repeated his pledge to repeal it anyway. The original relief bill proposed by Republicans actually contained a provision that would prevent non-profits who receive Medicaid dollars from being eligible for small business loans. This was presumably another attack on Planned Parenthood but the Washington Post reports that the provision could also be interpreted as covering “a big range of other nonprofits that get Medicaid funding, such as home and community-based disability providers; community-based nursing homes, mental health providers and health centers; group homes for the disabled; and even rape crisis centers”. Democrats managed to strip this provision out of the final bill.
Early on, the administration ordered immigration courts to actually remove CDC posters that warned about COVID-19. CBP and ICE detention centers are obviously perfect storms for an outbreak of COVID-19, yet ICE insists on flying some of these detainees all over the country, potentially spreading infection everywhere they go. The DOJ recently reopened immigration courts in Seattle and Newark, New Jersey, in violation of CDC’s own guidelines and the state’s stay at home orders. The administration’s attempt to revoke DACA status for thousands of immigrants is pending at the Supreme Court, even as 27,000 of those DACA recipients currently work in the health care sector.
Of course, the greatest GOP pathology is the refusal to allow any kind of universal health care. Before this crisis, there are 27 million Americans still without health insurance. A significant number of the 3.2 million Americans that filed for unemployment last week, and the millions more to file in the coming weeks, will probably lose their health insurance with their job. The relief bill provides for free testing for COVID-19 but does nothing to cover the costs of actual treatment for those uninsured, or even the out of pocket costs for those insured. We have no idea how many people will delay seeking treatment because of those potential costs. But we do know that people will die because they are uninsured. In fact, we already have our first tragedy in this regard, a California teen who apparently died of complications from the coronavirus after being denied treatment at a medical facility because he was uninsured.
The medical and economic carnage will continue but the next phase of this crisis will be the corruption and the cover-up. Trump has already added a signing statement to the relief bill the he will use to prevent Congress from being able to oversee how the corporate bailout money is disbursed. He has already ordered deliberations about the response to the pandemic to be classified. There is apparently no federal agency that is publicly tracking the number of COVID-19 cases in the country. Current totals currently rely the press or NGOs to collect and collate that information from individual states. A doctor at a Washington hospital was fired because he was posting concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in the hospital.
There will be plenty of blame to go around for both Democrats and Republicans for the missteps that have allowed COVID-19 to spread so rapidly through this country and the resulting deaths it will leave in its wake. But the largest share of the blame will go to the top, to the President who was only concerned with how the crisis would effect him politically, to his administration that was both incompetent and unprepared, to the Republican ideology that demonized government and ignored science and reason.
It is over two years since Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico. We still have no exact number for how many people died in the hurricane or unnecessarily in its aftermath, with the most complete estimate being somewhere around 4,500 people. We have no definitive number on how many Americans died unnecessarily because red state governors and legislatures refused to provide Medicaid expansion but one study estimates that is around 4,000 deaths per year. Other studies have shown that repealing the ACA would result in 24,000 to 44,000 preventable deaths each year.
We may never really know the number of Americans who died from COVID-19. But some day in the future, there will be a study that compares the response to the pandemic from South Korea or even China with that of the United States. That study will come up with some estimate of our preventable deaths. And one day there will hopefully be another study that examines all the preventable deaths that resulted from Republican policies, including foreign policy blunders such as the Iraq War, since the turn of the century. It will show that the party really was a mass murdering death cult. Sadly, it will just be another statistic.
Originally published at https://thesoundings.com on March 28, 2020.