Most of America is locked down or ordered to stay at home to suppress the Covid-10 pandemic. Traffic has disappeared and only a cyclist intrudes now and then to demonstrate that people are still alive. Malls are closed, parking lots empty.
Behind the scenes of economic demise and human death on television and computer screens, President Donald Trump’s senior team is more focused on eliminating government oversight, given the disjointed approach to fighting the spread of the virus.
Trillions of dollars in help have barely started to trickle out because of paperwork and management delays, some caused by confusion over what the rules are, some by an understaffed-undermanaged federal government run by true believers in “small government”. Many folks expecting a $1,200-gift, which a new Senate bill proposes to individuals in the wake of the pandemic, will be frustrated waiting at the mailbox.
Nearly 80 percent of American workers live paycheck to paycheck. In just a two-week period, more than 16,600,000 people filed for unemployment benefits, while millions of self-employed are not eligible for benefits, but face hunger and bankruptcy.
In the midst of this crisis, the Administration fired two important inspectors general (IGs) in the last few weeks. In the US government, the IG’s role is an independent and non-partisan position responsible for fiscal and legal oversight of a government department or agency. Trump publicly made it clear that he did not want any oversight on how the government disbursed trillions of dollars or how it was procuring medical supplies.
One of the IGs removed was Glenn A Fine, the acting IG for the Defense Department. He was set to become the chairman of a new Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. But Trump removed him from his Pentagon job, disqualifying him from serving on the new panel, and appointed Sean O’Donnell, who is the IG at the Environmental Protection Agency. He will now be handling both jobs. Trump had earlier fired the IG for the intelligence community, Michael K Atkinson, who had insisted on telling Congress about the whistleblower complaint on Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. At the same time, his temporary appointment to head US intelligence agencies has removed every Senate-appointed official in the National Intelligence hierarchy.
The government official who frequently disagrees with Trump is Dr Anthony Fauci who has headed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. Trump frequently uses his daily-televised briefing to promote hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug, as a possible cure for coronavirus. Fauci has pointed out that there was scant evidence that it worked and no scientific tests had been done to verify its efficacy in this fight. The leadership of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been co-opted by Trump’s acolytes, excepting Fauci and his department.
Trump’s live TV briefings, more campaign rally than factual or useful, have caused a lot of confusion in America about the severity of the disease. The more fantastical of Trump’s statements are amplified by media like Fox News, which still takes Trump seriously, while belatedly recognising the magnitude of the situation.
Unearthed memos reveal that trusted Trump advisor Peter Navarro told the president in January that coronavirus could demolish the American economy. This helps explain why Trump was dismissive of the virus for so long, calling it a hoax and easily managed.
The economic health of America is crucial to Trump’s re-election. He has grasped the idea that the daily briefings could be a campaign event. It satisfied his need for everything to be all about him. Despite the growing death toll, little has changed. Most afternoons he badgers reporters and blames others, all the while offering fearful, unproven medicine “cures” in a fog of misinformation, self-congratulation, political attacks and nonsense. Trump, the politician, is using the same—perhaps only—skills he has ever demonstrated in 40 years as a born-rich, make-believe billionaire businessman.
It is hard to “gaslight” a pandemic that kills thousands of people, regardless of their ideology. Trump voters from 2016 are learning this the hard way. In the president’s heartland, largely rural, less-populated states, the reality is crushingly obvious now. In Early County, Georgia, close to the Alabama border, and a typical southern enclave, five people have died from Covid-19.
Assistant police chief Tonya Tinsley sums up the shock in a rural county of fewer than 11,000 people. “Being from a small town, you think it’s not going to touch us,” she said. “We are so small and tucked away. You have a perception that it’s in bigger cities.” The police chief and the mayor in Blakely, the county seat, are among its 92 confirmed cases.
Much of the mainstream media has given up on Trump, including David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George Bush. This conservative writer, now an editor at The Atlantic magazine, was an early critic of Trump. He writes: “Trump now fancies himself a ‘wartime president.’ How is his war going? By the end of March, the coronavirus had killed more Americans than the 9/11 attacks. By the first weekend in April, the virus had killed more Americans than any single battle of the Civil War. By Easter, it may have killed more Americans than the Korean War. On the present trajectory, it will kill, by late April, more Americans than Vietnam.
“Having earlier promised that casualties could be held near zero, Trump now claims he will have done a ‘very good job’ if the toll is held below 2,00,000 dead. That the pandemic occurred is not Trump’s fault. The utter unpreparedness of the United States for a pandemic is Trump’s fault. The loss of stockpiled respirators to breakage because the federal government let maintenance contracts lapse in 2018 is Trump’s fault. The failure to store sufficient protective medical gear in the national arsenal is Trump’s fault. That states are bidding against other states for equipment, paying many multiples of the pre-crisis price for ventilators, is Trump’s fault. Air travellers summoned home and forced to stand for hours in dense airport crowds alongside infected people? That was Trump’s fault too. Ten weeks of insisting that the coronavirus is a harmless flu that would miraculously go away on its own? Trump’s fault too.”
The 2020 election is as critical for the future of America as was the Depression-era Roosevelt-Hoover election of 1932. But at what cost?
— The writer has worked in senior positions at The Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and also consults for several Indian channels
Lead picture: UNI