Mass Death By Public Policy

Last week, Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves actually went where the US media refuses to tread, tweeting, “How many people will die this summer, before Election Day? What proportion of the deaths will be among African-Americans, Latinos, other people of color? This is getting awfully close to genocide by default. What else do you call mass death by public policy? And I am being serious here: what is happening in the US is purposeful, considered negligence, omission, failure to act by our leaders. Can they be held responsible under international law? So, what does it mean to let thousands die by negligence, omission, failure to act, in a legal sense under international law?”

The chances of Trump ever appearing before the International Criminal Court to answer such charges are negligible. But he clearly has no plan to stop or even minimize the waves of death from this pandemic. As David Graham writes, “the Trump administration still has no plan for dealing with the global pandemic or its fallout. The president has cast doubt on the need for a vaccine or expanded testing. He has no evident plan for contact tracing. He has no treatment ideas beyond the drug remdesivir, since Trump’s marketing campaign for hydroxychloroquine ended in disaster. And, facing the worst economy since the Great Depression, the White House has no plan for that, either, beyond a quixotic hope that consumer demand will snap back as soon as businesses reopen”.

There is no doubt that the current administration plan of having no plan for dealing with the pandemic will lead to mass deaths. All the data shows that a disproportionate share of those deaths will be ethnic or racial minorities and poorer Americans. In Wisconsin, African Americans make up less than 7% of the population while accounting for nearly one third of the deaths. In Michigan and Missouri, African Americans make up around 40% of the deaths while comprising under 15% of the population in each state. According to a Washington Post report, “Disproportionately black counties account for 22 percent of all U.S. counties but have been home to 52 percent of coronavirus cases and 58 percent of deaths from covid-19”.

The Trump administration plan, such as it is, is a destined-to-fail attempt to keep the economy afloat by sacrificing poor and minority workers. As Richard Yeselson writes, “the US is doing the disaggregated, federalist version of de facto herd immunity now, weighted toward ‘disposables’ in nursing homes/prisons/meat packing/grocery procurement”. Nursing home residents may account for half of all COVID-19 related deaths so far. The Navajo nation has been so decimated by the virus and our response so weak that Doctors Without Borders is actually sending a team there. In Ohio, one correctional facility found that over 80% of prisoners had been infected with the virus. Almost 60% of workers in one Tyson meatpacking plant are infected. Basically, prisons and the meatpacking industry have essentially become a forced experiment in herd immunity. As Erik Loomis summarizes, what is happening in prisons and meatpacking facilities “is an immoral experiment in an unknown disease upon vulnerable populations. And the sad thing is, scientists are actually going to learn a lot about issues of herd immunity from these workers subjected to this without choice. Any comparisons to the Tuskegee Experiments are strictly appropriate”.

The meatpacking industry, whose plants only remain open because of Trump’s only official use of the Defense Production Act, exposes just how disposable these supposedly “essential” workers really are. Workers at Tyson and JBS, another leg of the meat-packing oligarchy, are reporting that the companies are simply hiring new workers to replace those who have left because they are sick or even dead. Rather than finding better ways to protect these workers, the companies are looking for and apparently receiving liability protection from the government. In fact, the head of Smithfield, another member of the meatpacking oligarchy, celebrated the availability of cheap labor that the pandemic was creating. And the supply of sacrificial workers may be unlimited as more and more unemployed workers become desperate for any kind of income.

The disposable nature of these “essential” workers is also evidenced by the racist attacks upon them. HHS Secretary Alex Azar blamed the outbreak in meatpacking plants on the “home and social” conditions of the workers. South Dakota Governor Christie Noem was more explicit in blaming the victims by saying, “We believe that 99 percent of what’s going on today wasn’t happening inside the facility. It was more at home, where these employees were going home and spreading some of the virus. Because a lot of these folks that work at this plant live in the same community, same building, sometimes in the same apartment”. A Smithfield spokesperson added their own racist twist, saying, “Living circumstances in certain cultures are different than they are with your traditional American family”. A Wisconsin Supreme Court judge opined on a spike in infections in one county by stating, “These were due to the meatpacking, though…It wasn’t just the regular folks in Brown County”.

Like all genocides, the perpetrators try to ensure the extent of their crimes remain hidden. It is no different today. Trump has continually fought against expanded testing because it will show the true number of infections. Already, prominent Republican figures are floating the bogus theory that the COVID-19 death toll is vastly overstated and a large segment of the Republican party believes that to be so. In Florida, the state is not reporting deaths or infections in nursing homes and prisons. It tried to prevent the release of medical examiners’ reports but botched the redaction process. The state’s Department of Health does not include the deaths of seasonal residents, tourists, and nonresidents in its pandemic reports. In Arizona, the state told the group of epidemiologists working on modeling the crisis to shut down as part of the governor’s plan to reopen. Those models not only showed that infections were increasing but would lay down future markers that could be used to gauge the governor’s actions. Only after an outcry from the public were the modelers allowed to continue. In Nebraska, the governor has simply and arbitrarily decide to suspend reporting COVID-19 data from meatpacking plants, citing privacy concerns.

Historically, pandemics usually end long before a treatment or vaccine is found. Of course, this one may be different simply because of our more advanced medical knowledge and resources than in the past. Or maybe not. Usually, though, the pandemic “ends” when society simply decides that the number of deaths associated with returning to normal reaches some ill-defined “acceptable” level. As Gina Kolata notes, “One possibility, historians say, is that the coronavirus pandemic could end socially before it ends medically. People may grow so tired of the restrictions that they declare the pandemic over, even as the virus continues to smolder in the population and before a vaccine or effective treatment is found”. Usually that “acceptable” level of deaths falls disproportionately on the poor and powerless. And American’s tolerance for gun violence at levels unseen in any other developed country only illustrates just how high our tolerance already is for unnecessary deaths.

Racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and xenophobia have been a hallmark of not only Trump’s campaign in 2016 but his entire administration. The pandemic has only heightened those features, in Trump, his policies, and his supporters. In the wake of Trump’s storming out of his own press conference after throwing out a racist retort to one female reporter’s question, the President’s personal attorney tweeted, “This is coronavirus press conference number, what, probably somewhere in the 50s? POC liberal women have been present at every one of them and asked stupid questions. Sometimes for HOURS. This is the first time he’s just walked off. Finally”. Data shows that there has been a remarkable upsurge in anti-Chinese and anti-Semitic hate speech and incitement to violence since the pandemic began. That is on top of the just-released ADL report that showed anti-Semitic attacks in 2019 reaching the highest level in 40 years.

The story of America is also the story of racism and nativism. But the backlash to the Civil Rights era and now the Obama presidency has produced one of the more virulent strains of both. There is a through line from the eugenics proposed by the racist and nativist John Tanton to Stephen Miller and Trump’s immigration policies. There is a through line from Trump’s rhetoric to the attack on an Asian-American woman in Minnesota and the stalking and murder of Ahmaud Arbery. There is a through line from Trump’s pandemic response to the paramilitary groups invading state capitols and issuing death threats against governors. Robert Mercer, the man who made Trump President, has been described as believing that “human beings have no inherent value other than how much money they make…[I]f someone is on welfare, they have negative value. If he earns a thousand times more than a schoolteacher, then he is a thousand times more valuable”. Those values are not only embedded in Trump but in the Republican party that abets him and the business class that stands solidly behind him or sits silently as he condemns thousands of low-wage workers and the weakest among us to die in order to sustain their quality of life. What we see in Trump’s pandemic response and his plan going forward is nothing less than governmental manslaughter on a national scale.

Better men and women than I have pondered how a society could collapse to the point where Jews are hauled off to concentration camps or Tutsis could be massacred by the hundreds of thousands with little or no resistance from the general populace. While not on the same scale as those genocides, I do know we are living in a dangerous time. The Supreme Court is seriously considering the argument that Trump has “temporary presidential immunity” and “is not to be treated as an ordinary citizen”. The President himself is calling a journalist a murderer and accusing his predecessor of some unspecified but apparently heinous crime. His lickspittle Attorney General has become the President’s personal Thomas Cromwell, protecting the President and pursuing his enemies. The President’s most trusted adviser “can’t commit one way or another” as to whether there will be an election in November. And the pandemic “plan” involves hoping the daily death toll of a couple of thousand people somehow becomes normalized. As Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez write, “The problem with normalizing deaths” is that “it allows more deaths”. And yet we seem powerless to stop it.

Originally published at on May 13, 2020.

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