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Blinded by Power

Even as an overwhelmed America tries to battle the pandemic, its president has shirked all responsibility and riled governors and other stakeholders with his wrong tactics. By Kenneth Tiven in the US

WITH the death toll in the US approaching close to 30,000, unemployment in excess of 160,00,000, crowded food banks and retail sales that have fallen off a cliff, the US is in serious trouble.

A very unhappy President Donald Trump vented his frustration at the WHO—and by extension the whole globe—because of the criticism of his administration’s response to Covid-19. In a shocking turn of events, he ordered a halt of $200 million to the organisation—the second half of the US’ annual contribution to it. Further, he said that the US would review if the WHO was responsible “for severely mismanaging and covering up the spread”. “So much death has been caused by their mistakes,” he said.

In essence, the president wants to blame WHO for all the mistakes that he himself has made in America. This shift of responsibility reflects right-wing political conspiracy theories floated in the US that China has bribed top

WHO officials regarding the coronavirus. This is a volte-face as in late January, Trump had tweeted praise for China’s transparency.

When asked in March about shortcomings in America’s testing capabilities,Trump had said: “I don’t take responsibility at all.” Instead, for months, he has claimed that the news media, governors, Democratic members of the Congress and former president Barack Obama bear responsibility for the number of cases overwhelming American hospitals.

Before attacking the WHO, the famously thin-skinned president had turned his daily TV briefing into a propaganda show to demonstrate he was in charge. “I guess I’m doing ok because to the best of my knowledge I’m still the president of the United States, despite the things that are said.” Unfortunately for him, the numbers do tell a completely different story.

The blame game shifted gears after both The New York Times and Washington Post published detailed articles showing that multiple advisers and intelligence reports about the severity of the virus began in late December 2019. At a briefing, Trump played a video that looked suspiciously similar to a campaign advertisement used several weeks ago about his “perfect” handling of the crisis. MSNBC and CNN, two of the nation’s three major news channels, were cut out of the briefing, unheard-of-behaviour on their part. Fox News, thoroughly partisan in support of Trump, had frequently cut away from President Obama if it didn’t like what he was saying.

If Trump’s media preoccupation wasn’t a big enough distraction in a crisis, he got into a war of words with Democratic governors of the biggest East and West Coast states after learning that they were developing criteria for any reopening. Trump is anxious to reopen businesses in May because a continuing negative economic situation imperils his re-election in November. Medical and pandemic experts caution that even this summer may be too soon.

Trump said only he can order a reopening, “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total.” Constitutionally, it is not, but secret laws might provide extraordinary authority to the president in emergency situations. Preet Bharara, fired by Trump from his post as the federal Justice Department’s head lawyer for the Southern District of New York, said sarcastically in a tweet aimed at Trump: “My authority is total but my responsibility is zero. What leadership.”

The president’s day-long assertions of power failed to impress. “Well, seeing as we had the responsibility for closing the state down,” Gov Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania said, “I think governors probably have primary responsibility for opening it up.” The governors of California, Oregon and Washington State also disagreed. All governors control their state police and a state’s National Guard army reservists.

A day later, Trump backed away. Any power struggle with the federal authorities would leave businesses and workers in the untenable position of trying to decide whom to obey.

In Florida, farmers are obeying the law of supply and demand because with restaurants, the hospitality industry, sc­hools and organisations now closed by the pandemic, those growing perishable items have lost half their customers. No matter how many meals people prepare at home, it doesn’t offset the lost industrial-scale demand. 

The Dairy Farmers of America Inc., a national milk cooperative, estimates that member farms are dumping around 3.7 million gallons of milk daily. Cows don’t know how to shut down for a pandemic. A single chicken processor is smashing 7,50,000 eggs every week. Major meat packers have closed because of increasing numbers of infected workers.  Soon the question—beef, pork or chicken for supper—will have no meaning. There might not be much for sale. 

“It’s a catastrophe, it really is,” said Tony DiMare, a tomato grower based in Palm Beach County, Florida, not far from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago retreat and club on the Palm Beach coast. DiMare said he let 10 million pounds of tomatoes rot on the farm because there is no market for them.

“Farmers are very resilient. But this is new territory,” said Toby Bedsore, a large lettuce grower in the eastern coast. “If crews start getting sick, who will harvest the crops?” In Florida, produce grower Paul Allen ploughed some million pounds of green beans and said food banks in the region were already overwhelmed with produce donated by the state’s shuttered tourism and food-service industries. There is only so much perishable food that charities with limited numbers of refrigerators and volunteers can absorb.

Supply chains are stretched for many products, and fewer and fewer stores are open. A drawbridge operator on the Intracoastal waterway that parallels Florida’s coast said that boat traffic is half the usual volume. Alan Rozinsky said that while the bridge is open, backed up cars waiting to cross area around 20 percent the normal volume.

Across the US, courthouses are closed, leaving people in limbo for hearings or trials. Few lawyers are working and legal depositions are on hold as social distancing in a small conference room is nearly impossible. A man whose livelihood depends on recording video finds it ironic because he had his best ever in January and February. “I knew it wouldn’t last,” said Mike Parker, “but I didn’t expect zero business from March onward because of a pandemic.”

Airline flights in America are half the usual volume, with many planes nearly empty. The Interstate Highway System has few automobiles, making it faster for large trucks to reach their destinations. This doesn’t help the farmers whose perishable fruits and vegetables cannot be delivered to a closed or bankrupt restaurant or business.

— The writer has worked in senior positions at The Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and also consults for several Indian channels

Lead Photo: UNI

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