Fiddling While Fever Burns

The Trump Administration is bungling the Coronavirus response at near-criminal magnitude while POTUS soothes his fragile ego with pathetic displays like this at the CDC on March 6:

This kind of foolish and transparent self-aggrandizement, though serious, is actually the least of the government’s failings.

The threat of Coronavirus first came into focus in early January. As events unfolded through the month, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global health emergency on January 30. The Trump Administration banned travel from China the next day.

Nearly a full month later, on February 27, the Trump Administration finally organized to contain the virus, appointing Mile Pence to lead the charge. Pence actually had dual tasks, the other being to contain the political fallout. More on this below.

Also on February 27 it was reported that an antibody test to detect Coronavirus had been developed in Singapore. The U.S. approved testing on March 3. Since then the U.S. has lagged pitifully behind other countries in getting test kits out, leaving us largely ignorant of our status here in the U.S. More on this below as well.

Precious time was lost while Trump railed about hoaxes and fake news, blamed Obama, and claimed we’d see the 15 U.S. cases diminish as most would recover over the following few days.

Our country’s leaders have been fiddling as proverbial Rome burned. Or, fevers in this case.

Setting the Stage for Disaster

Right out of the gate, newly-elected President Trump disbanded the White House’s National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, telling the government’s pandemic experts to take a hike. “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, guys.” Ironically, the unit’s leader, Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, left the White House on the very day a new Ebola outbreak was declared in the Congo. The writing was on the wall!

Since the beginning, the Administration has had it out for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Must be a hotbed of that ‘Deep State’ thing. Trump’s first budget proposed a 10% cut — $136 million — to the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response. In addition he proposed an 11% cut — $65 million — to the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. Then an 18% cut — $76 million — to the Center for Global Health. Together these totaled a draconian 17% cut to the CDC overall.

Even some Republicans seemed to realize this was a bad idea. The New York Times quoted one prolific exchange in 2017:

“Sometime in the president’s term, you will have a pandemic,” Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, told the president’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, at a House budget hearing on Wednesday. “You will have a Zika, you will have an Ebola,” Mr. Cole said.

“Cutting the Centers for Disease Control, I think, leaves you very vulnerable and the American people very vulnerable,” he said.

You think?

Now the Train Wreck

Fast forward to the current crisis and the train wreck has come to fruition. True to form, Trump has minimized the threat, treated it as a personal political inconvenience, distorted facts, outright lied, ranted on Twitter crying hoax and fake news, and basically been… well… Trump.

Also, true to his nature, Trump accepts no responsibility for his Administration’s failures. That buck is still back at Truman’s desk.

Science has taken a backseat to politics with none other than Mike Pence in charge of the message. Everything has to be cleared — read “cleansed” — through Pence’s office. It’s worth noting that Pence’s history in matters of public health doesn’t bode well here.

Reuters has reported that top-level meetings on the Coronavirus are classified by direct order of the White House. Reuters has reported,

Staffers without security clearances, including government experts, were excluded from the interagency meetings, which included video conference calls, the sources said. […]

Two Democratic senators, both senior members of the Intelligence Committee expressed dismay Wednesday in statements to Reuters.

“Pandemics demand transparency and competence,” said Mark Warner of Virginia. “Classification authority should never be abused in order to hide what the government is doing, or not doing, just to satisfy domestic political concerns.”

Muzzling medical experts to censor public health information in the face of a deadly contagion is flat-out criminal. Trump’s misinformation and lies have always been annoying, but now they have deadly consequences. The BBC examined five of Trump’s dubious claims about Coronavirus, and the New York Times has catalogued them from January 24 through March 11.

It’s difficult to know the full extent of the situation here because comparatively few tests have been conducted in the United States compared to other countries. WorldoMeter reports the U.S., as of March 9, has conducted the third-fewest tests per million people of 18 countries being monitored. Only Vietnam and Turkey have done worse. The CDC updates its report on testing every weekday at Noon.

This is where things stand today. The crisis is still setting in and building at this stage. We don’t know yet how many people will ultimately be affected, who or how badly. We don’t know if we ourselves will get sick, or friends, or loved ones. Stay tuned, I guess. Take care of yourself and those around you. Wash your hands, cover your cough, and Be Well.

The story doesn’t have to go like this. There’s a whole other way that we could be approaching situations like this. Read on.

There’s Another Way

Coronavirus has plunged the world into crisis, and in doing so it has exposed the inability, and even the unwillingness, of capitalist countries to address the problem. In the United States, for instance, the entire healthcare system is a for-profit enterprise whose primary purpose is shareholder return on investment. The product — healthcare — is a commodity to be purchased. Access depends on one’s ability to pay.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) — so-called “Obamacare” — has improved things somewhat despite its negatives and weaknesses. Still, healthcare in America is disgraceful:

  • 9.1% of Americans had no health insurance in 2017. [1]
  • Administrative costs of healthcare are 8% in the U.S. versus 1%-3% elsewhere. [1]
  • U.S. healthcare ranks last among leading developed countries, yet we pay more. [1]
  • The U.S. has 2.3 doctors per 1000 citizens, compared with France and Germany (3.4), Israel (3.8), Italy (4.2), and Cuba (5.9). [2]
  • Exact estimates vary, but tens of thousands die each year in the U.S. for lack of medical insurance. [3, 4, 5]
  • 530,000 families each year face bankruptcy due to medical bills. In 2018 there were 250,000 GoFundMe pages related to medical bills. [6]

All this in supposedly the richest, most powerful and most advanced nation on Earth.

As petty and dangerous as Trump is, his antics are a carnival sideshow. The issues here are bigger than Trump. They’re bigger than Biden or Sanders. They’re bigger than the two parties. The problem is the two parties — or more precisely, the problem is system the two parties represent, defend and perpetuate.

It’s clear that the upper class, propertied class, the rich, the 1%, the bosses — choose your label — are incapable of handling a crisis like this because they don’t see it as a social question. They think in terms of profit and loss. Trump’s biggest concern with Coronavirus has been the Stock Market. The ruling class, the label I use, doesn’t see the Coronavirus as a question for workers to address — that’s you and me, the mass of us who work for a wage in one way or another. They don’t see us having any meaningful role beyond sacrifice.

The U.S. isn’t alone in botching its Coronavirus response. In China, the first doctor to recognize the problem and sound the alarm, Dr. Li Wenliang, was reprimanded, arrested and forced to “confess” to spreading rumors. (He later died of the disease.) France, Germany and the Czech Republic are effectively hoarding protective gear against pleas from the European Union (EU). EU countries are turning their backs on Italy, which is now in a nationwide lockdown. Britain is maintaining business as usual while at the same time Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned Britains to brace for the “worst public health crisis for a generation” and be prepared “to lose loved ones before their time.”

It doesn’t have to be like this. There’s another way — as demonstrated by a country one might expect is least able to summon the resources to do so: Cuba.

Fighting Disease is a Social Question

Since the earliest days of the revolution, Cuba has risen to the call when countries were in need. Shortly after the 1959 revolution, Cuba aided Chile following a 9.5 earthquake — despite the fact that half of Cuba’s 6,000 doctors had just fled due to the revolution.

In 2015 Cuba’s international medical program was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. The nomination reported that since the revolution over 325,000 Cuban medical volunteers have provided assistance to 158 countries — far exceeding services provided by any of the wealthy industrialized nations or even the World Health Organization (WHO). As of January 2015, almost 52,000 Cuban medical personnel were then working in 67 countries.

As the world now faces the Coronavirus crisis, Cuba’s example in mobilizing to combat Ebola in Africa is one to emulate. The WHO declared a “Public Health Emergency” in 2014 and Cuba was the only country to send medical personnel. 12,000 Cuban doctors and nurses answered a call for volunteers from which 256 were selected and trained for the mission.

The mainstream media gave some coverage to this. Videos from CNN and the BBC are included above. Foreign Policy reported on Cuba’s initial mission to combat Ebola and its follow-up efforts to help rebuild the healthcare systems of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Time Magazine carried a report on Cuba’s Ebola mission and others it has conducted since the 1960 Chilean earthquake.

But why is Cuba so uniquely prepared to treat Ebola? It comes down to a national priority that even has its own name, coined by academics: “Cuban Medical Internationalism.”

Cuba’s global health crisis response system is a Doctors Without Borders-like program, but instituted by the government. When Cuban doctors graduate medical school, they are given the opportunity to volunteer to be called upon for medical missions, like an Ebola outbreak or a natural catastrophe. Often, these are one to two-year commitments. To prepare for something like Ebola, health care workers not only undergo aggressive training for the specific disease they are treating, but they also take courses on the region’s culture and history as well.

“This is something built into the psyche of Cuban doctors and nurses—the idea that ‘I am a public servant,’” says Gail Reed, co-founder of Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC). “It’s coming from a commitment to make health care a universally accepted right.”

Cuba conducts these internationalist missions in a sprit of proletarian solidarity.  These missions demonstrate the capacity of working people to take control and responsibility for their lives, their country and their fellow man around the world. When faced with natural disasters or medical crises at home or abroad, Cubans act in the interests of human need and solidarity, not the cold calculations of a financial spreadsheet. Cuba often does this at great risk. It doesn’t have a lot in the way of material resources, but it has the strength of its people. It finds a way.

Of course this is all possible because Cuba is a very different kind of society. It overthrew capitalism and built a socialist society where the working class is in charge.

Read the Book

Pathfinder Press has just released a book telling the story of Cuba’s Ebola mission. Red Zone: Cuba and the Fight Against Ebola in Western Africa runs 272 pages and is available in English and Spanish.

Copies can be purchased through Amazon or the publisher, Pathfinder Press.

If these topics have been of interest, I did two posts on my original Just Sayin’ blog that you might check out.

Related Posts


The Abominable Health Care Act
Friday, March 10, 2017


Fidel Castro & the Cuban Revolution
Saturday, December 31, 2016
Image: Ian Usher

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2 thoughts on “Fiddling While Fever Burns

  1. Sorry, but if the penalty for trying to leave the country is death, that is not a form of government the world needs. No matter how good their reading programs are.

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