US bourgeoisie’s chaotic response to the pandemic

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“If people are dying like flies today, at the very heart of the most developed countries, it is in the first place because everywhere governments have cut budgets destined for research into new diseases. Thus in May 2018 Donald Trump got rid of a special unit of the National Security Council, composed of eminent experts and created to fight against pandemics.” [1]

At the end of December 2019, reports indicated China was investigating an outbreak of respiratory illness in the city of Wuhan. Between January 6-8 this year, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a series of warnings and alerts while the first reported US case of Covid-19 was landmarked on January 21. The following day, US President Donald Trump said that the US has coronavirus "totally under control. It's one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It's going to be just fine."

By the middle of May, it was becoming evident that “it” was neither under control nor fine. Statistics showed over 1.3 million Americans infected with Covid-19 virus – one third of global cases at that time – with over 80,000 officially dead from the disease, more US personnel than died during almost two decades of the Vietnam War!

In large cities, reality revealed bodies – victims of the virus – lying rotting in hire-trucks outside overwhelmed undertakers or stored in refrigerated vans parked near institutions absurdly labelled “care homes”. In the countryside: Rural America was already coping with an epidemic when the virus struck… [in regions] racked by deaths from oxycontin, fentanyl and alcohol — ‘diseases of despair.’… There are the 38 million Americans living below the federal poverty level, many of whom work several jobs. Over 27.5 million now lack medical insurance – up from the 25.6 million uninsured in 2017 before the Trump administration began its attack on the Affordable Care Act [‘Obamacare’] — and millions of others have high co-pays and deductibles and poor coverage. Infections will spread easily among the more than two million in the close quarters of prisons. Equally at risk will be the corrections officers and staff, often living in communities where prisons provide the only work and where the opioid crisis has packed rural prisons. Some 10 million undocumented immigrants are afraid to seek medical care for fear of attracting the attention of Immigration and Customs Enforcement…” [2]

Furthermore, in the six weeks to the end of April, over 30 million US workers - 1 in 5 - applied for unemployment ‘benefit’, indicating an unprecedented unemployment rate of between 16 to 20%. Not all who applied received all or even any of the federal state’s emergency handouts.

By many measurements, America is still the ‘most powerful nation on earth’. As global stock markets collapsed between February 24-28 and the demand for credit rose, it was the US Federal Reserve which advanced funds to major domestic financial institutions and enabled central banks around the world to exchange their own currencies for dollars through "swap lines".

So nothing better illustrates the global and historic blockage represented by capitalist social relations than the contrast between the technological, productive and innovative potential of the United States and the distress, division and death on the streets and behind shuttered doors of the world’s most advanced country; between the provision of the best medical resources in the world and the socially limited access to such ‘benefits’.

Cock-up, conspiracy, or decomposition?

In truth, the response of the Trump administration to the virus crisis – in its broad outlines – closely resembled that of the majority of major nation states: lie, deny, delay and decry before being forced grudgingly to act through the partial closure of the economy with a view to ‘business as normal’ asap.

  • Lie: Trump claimed the World Health Organisation hadn’t issued clear warnings. In fact, the Trump administration’s belittling of and threat to cut funds to the WHO which had helped coordinate a relatively centralised and global response to the 2003 SARS outbreak illustrates how capitalism is forging ahead – by abandoning the international structures and accumulated knowledge it previously erected precisely to cope with situations like the current pandemic. It reveals a general shift away from multilateralism to bilateralism, coupled in the US with an abandonment of the moral high-ground of ‘world leadership’ in favour of a populist ‘American first’ policy, an open recognition that at the level of international affairs, as well as domestic politics, it’s “every man for himself.” This episode – along with the theft of medical supplies destined for other countries – is but one further demonstration that the former world cop is now a leading factor in the spread of global chaos and gangsterism, an active factor in the break-down of existing international arrangements and institutions. Similarly, the seizures within the US of hospital equipment and supplies to be stockpiled by the Federal authorities or diverted to states supportive of the Trump clique, or to marginal ‘swing’ state requiring inducements, displays a level of corruption and contempt for national protocols that would make even the Bush clan squirm.
  • Deny: Having ignored the reality of the virus crisis (“it’s a hoax”), then denying the severity of the outbreak  (“It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle—it will disappear”), then peddling a series of quack remedies, most notoriously the suggestion that injecting disinfectant might be a good idea, the President variously claimed that he’d inherited from the Obama administration a “bare cupboard” in terms of testing kit, that everyone who needed tests and/or personal protective equipment (PPE) had access to them, before saying none of this was his responsibility – it was all down to state Governors. Hence the ridiculous spectacle of different federal states bidding against each other for masks, gowns, gloves, driving up the price to the delight of profiteers and the despair of those ‘key workers’ requiring them. Thus the chaos unleashed on the globe by the decomposition of capitalist social relations was mirrored internally in America as the pandemic unfolded.
  • Delay: The drive to protect the economy and profits at the expense of people, the dissembling and deceit coming from the top, fuelled delays in obtaining PPE and testing kit and in procuring ventilators, hospital beds and specialist medical staff, thus driving up infection and death rates. Appearing to abandon decision-making to the Federal states led to varied approaches between different states – and sometimes within each state, for example between cities and rural areas, with such divisions often appearing along party divides. This amounted to a sinister living lab experiment of enthusiastically enforced quarantining versus a ‘laisser-faire’ attitude to social distancing and ‘lockdowns’. In truth, neither approach could or can square the circle of ‘profits before people’. And to understand where real power resides – Washington, the Pentagon and Wall Street – it’s only necessary to recall that eventually it was the National State of Emergency declared by Trump on March 13 (backdated!!) which paved the way for the issuing of an unprecedented $2.3 trillion bail-out for federal states, corporations, businesses and individuals in the face of mass unemployment and a collapsing economy. And it’s Washington that’s faced with drumming up international loans to cover the ensuing $3trillion deficit…
  • Decry: Initially praising the efforts of China’s President Xi Jinping, the Trump administration soon took to baiting its rival in the East, calling the epidemic the ‘Wuhan virus’, threatening further trade sanctions against China and those dealing with it, and even adding to the burgeoning conspiracy theories muddying the waters and consciousness of reality in America by suggesting the Covid-19 was produced in a Chinese laboratory and that China may have deliberately spread it around the world. In this sense, at the level of inter-imperialist antagonisms, Trump’s administration is clearly continuing Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ policy which aims at containing China’s own economic and imperialist appetites. In this he’s ably abetted by the Democrats’ presumed presidential nominee Joe Biden, who criticises Trump for being ‘too soft’ on China. During an unprecedented medical emergency, the US seeks to take advantage on the world arena through bombast and force, choosing this moment (March 21) to announce the successful launch of a hypersonic missile prototype. China has acted no differently: it attempted a cover-up the same as the US, and has tried to score propaganda points from its subsequent apparent success in containing the spread of the virus. The planet’s two major economic and military powers are driven by the same profit motive and behave in the same manner. [3]

A certain loss of control

The same chaos that was unleashed by the US in response to the pandemic was replicated as it sought to end measures of quarantine and ‘unlock’ the economy.

By the end of the first week in May:

  • Stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders around country were lifted in some states and extended in others.
  • Trump announced his intention to disband the government’s coronavirus task force, but appeared to row back after an outcry. In all events, as infections and deaths continued to rise in many regions, the Administration says it’s looking forward to ‘unlocking’ the economy, not keeping America locked up for 5 years, and task force front-man Dr Anthony Fauci who is the public face of the ‘fight against the virus’ was one of three White House staff self-quarantining after coming into contact with infected persons;
  • The President encouraged demonstrations (some armed) against lockdown orders in a dozen states, quashed advice on how to open up the economy prepared by his own advisors yet hadn’t actually taken any positive steps to legislate for renewed economic activity (utterances don’t count).
  • Had planned to issue a Defence Production Act order to compel workers at meat packing plants – hotspots of virus transmission – to return to factories in the face of threatened food shortages, yet many such institutions remained shut.

The President’s Democrat critics – Obama included – accused the Administration of presiding over chaos. His Republican supporters said continued lockdown was not an option and harmed as many as it helped. Both in a way were correct: the ruling class in the US has no answers.

Robert Frank     11.5.2020

[1] ICC International Leaflet Covid 19: Generalised capitalist barbarism or World Proletarian Revolution 

[2] New York Times, March 20



Covid-19 pandemic