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Coronavirus reveals the West’s underbelly

Sunday May 3 2020


US President Donald Trump speaks as he departs the White House, on May 1, 2020, in Washington, DC. PHOTO | JIM WATSON | AFP 

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“Civilisations die from suicide, not by murder.” –Arnold J. Toynbee, historian.

Nothing like the new coronavirus has ever overwhelmed so much of the world in such short order, or with such cataclysmic force.

And part of the horror, wrote the New York Times in a powerful editorial three weeks ago, is that many poorer countries would not have the means to do much about it.

But in fact, it was the United States itself which has had to struggle more than any other country in the world to cope with this maelstrom, despite seemingly the best-equipped to do so.

Indeed, the US was ranked first last year in preparedness by the blue-ribbon Global Health Security Index on pandemics, quite erroneously as the health infrastructure in the US is an utter mess, and the conditions in which the poor live in cities are death traps for virus transmissions.

As it is, the US turned out to be terribly unprepared, and has tragically lost nearly 70,000 people to this virus, which is more than twice the number of deaths in any other country.


This number would be higher but for the heroic effort, and the ultimate sacrifices, made by thousands of doctors, nurses and other frontline workers toiling amidst severe shortages of vital lifesaving equipment, including of their own anti-viral protections.


It was never going to be easy to cope with this novel coronavirus. Its exceptional stealth, virulence, ease of contagion and the horrendous suffering it causes are unparalleled in the last century.

At least a quarter of a million people have perished globally so far, at a speed much faster than any war even between mighty nations since the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Such is the terror unleashed by this coronavirus that the only way to stop its spread was to “lock down” people where they are, which meant that life as we know it has been totally upended or stilled in every corner of the globe for the first time in history, and for a while yet.

That in turn has spawned another vast emergency which has deprived over a billion people of livelihoods on which they depend to put food on the table for their families every day.

Amid the growing national panic and chaos once this coronavirus raced across the country, there was a constant, surreal sight: President Donald Trump at his daily White house briefings heaping praise on himself and his administration for being way ahead of the curve in battling this crisis even as thousands perished every day.

He would also assert the ample availability of tests, ventilators and other vitally needed equipment even as media showed images of doctors, nurses and others crying out about their shortages from ICUs.

But the singular focus on President Trump’s drastically delayed response has obscured the other fundamental reality: that while President Trump and his administration bear the primary responsibility for the spread this careening virus, this was in fact a devastating, across-the-board national failure.


Critical institutions like Congress, governors, mayors, medical associations, think tanks, relief organisations and the media should have also raised the alarm as the gathering storm from Wuhan, China in fact was clearly visible for anyone to see.

To cite a simple example of avoiding scrutiny of “your side”: more people have died in New York state than most countries in the world, yet how much scrutiny has there been of its leadership’s actions regarding the coronavirus?

NYC’s death toll is also an astonishing 15 times higher than California’s, which locked down earlier and more rigorously.

Governor Cuomo holds daily, nationally televised briefings which are immensely popular. But at these briefings, he has never been asked a single sharp question about his handling of the crisis.

In addition, many US medical experts, as well as former presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama, and philanthropist Bill Gates, had strongly warned that such a deadly pandemic was inevitable and that preparations to meet this challenge must be made.

And yet no plan or blueprint had been prepared by Mr Trump or earlier presidents to provide guidance.

But the real “underlying cause” that makes the US more vulnerable than other industrialised countries to withstand the spread of pandemics is the extreme paucity of social care and organisation, the conditions in which tens of millions of the poor live, and a brutal, for profit health system that blocks out tens of millions who have no meaningful insurance, or who cannot afford any care that requires exorbitant co-pays or minimums, et cetera.


The healthcare system itself has been gutted over the decades, starting in the 1980s that saw massive tax cuts for the super-rich and corporations, and resulted in “Health Systems Cut to the Bone”, as the Ney York Times wrote in a front-page headline last month.

There was subsequently the “rapacious dismantling” of the public health system in favour of the private, for profit hospitals, which left us totally unprepared to meet any health crisis.

So when Americans were first urged in early March to voluntarily stay home if they had even mild symptoms of coronavirus, and to get tested, it was soon discovered that workers earning low wages could not afford to do either – and were unwittingly spreading the virus.

Hard as it is to believe, tens of millions of workers are not entitled to any paid leave or sick leave. And tens of millions have no health insurance and so could not get tested.

The Trump administration quickly enacted new rules that permitted any ill person to get tested for free, but such is the heartlessness of this entrenched system; treatment of coronavirus was not made free.

One astounding figure sums it up: the top 0.1 per cent of American households (330,000) hold the same amount of wealth as the bottom 90 per cent (300 million).


The coronavirus crisis, with over 60,000 dead here and rising, while South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia lost about 1,000 people, has shown there is something profoundly wrong in the richest and most powerful of all countries.

The simplest way to put it is that all ancient values have been abandoned by the powerful. The priority is how to maintain, enhance, or get into power for the wealth that will bring.

I do believe our civilisation is on its deathbed. There is no world leader who has a plan to end extreme suffering and bring nations together.

Salim Lone was director of communications at the United Nations under Kofi Annan, and subsequently Spokesman for former Prime Minister Raila Odinga.