Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control warned that the United States should brace itself for a widespread outbreak of the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19. “It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen,” National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases Director Dr. Nancy Messonnier told reporters yesterday. “We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad.” Wall Street was responsive, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average had tumbled nearly 900 points by the end of the day.
Exploiting crisis is a common move in politics, especially on the right. And in reactions to the current coronavirus outbreak worldwide, there’s already a pattern emerging. French National Rally party head Marine Le Pen and the League Party’s Matteo Salvini, of Italy—right-wing opposition leaders polling well against their countries’ centrist governments—have begun using the coronavirus’s spread as a platform to advocate long-held closed-border policies they hope will endear them to panicked voters. In Italy, where there are now well over 200 confirmed cases, Salvini called to “make our borders armor-plated” and criticized the government for allowing an NGO rescue ship with 276 African migrants aboard to dock; of the two confirmed cases in Africa, one came from an Italian who flew to Algeria. There are now two confirmed cases in France, where Le Pen urges suspending Europe’s Schengen Zone, which allows free passage within the customs union.
The image of foreigners spreading disease is rich terrain for the far right. It’s a version of what the American eugenicist-ecologist Garrett Hardin termed “lifeboat ethics.” An inspiration for the far right, Hardin in the 1970s imagined a zero-sum game for planetary survival, where the world’s mostly black and brown poor would compete with the wealthy for resources, threatening to pollute air, water, and bloodlines alike to disastrous ends. Keeping people out, Hardin argued, prevents them from being a drain on nature and allows the rest of the population to stay healthier and more genetically pure. In addition to draconian immigration measures, he pushed for population control. “We never really conquer any diseases finally,” Hardin argued in an interview toward the end of his life, “and the bigger the population is, the harder it is to control.”
White supremacy and closed borders are as poor an answer to the coronavirus as they are to the climate crisis and certainly won’t solve either problem, making life far more dangerous for many as the world warms. Like it or not, we’re all in this boat together. As pointed out yesterday, even by the thoroughly Republican Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, “We cannot hermetically seal off the United States to a virus.”
There are, in fact, well-known and effective steps an interested government could take to defend against the coronavirus. Yet few places seem as ill-suited for dealing with a pandemic as the U.S. under the current administration. Our patchy, expensive, and inefficient health care system is already charging people thousands of dollars to get tested for the coronavirus, discouraging the kind of early diagnosis necessary for containment. The expense could prevent millions from seeking treatment, spurring the spread and death count alike. Meanwhile, 40-plus years of right-wing attacks on the public sphere have drained capacity and talent from the government, making it harder to take on big problems at scale. And a bipartisan panic about budget deficits has made large-scale spending on anything but wars virtually unthinkable.
Trump’s governing approach—characterized by a chaotic mix of small-government fetishism, big-government xenophobia, distrust of scientific authority, fondness for authoritarians, aversion to international coordination, and bumbling administrative incompetence, all topped off by a penchant for spreading disinformation—makes an effective response harder still. “Deployment of a containment operation,” the World Health Organization advises, in contrast, “will require extraordinary international advance planning on the part of WHO and countries worldwide.” Literally and figuratively, Pandemic is a cooperative game.
The Obama administration’s widely praised response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014 involved a flurry of administrative activity across departments and, ultimately, the appointment of an “epidemic czar” to oversee the response. The Trump administration, while now considering whether to hire its own epidemic czar, has been markedly more casual about the coronavirus outbreak. As Laurie Garrett wrote for Foreign Policy this week:
In 2018, the Trump administration fired the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command, including the White House management infrastructure. In numerous phone calls and emails with key agencies across the U.S., the only consistent response I encountered was distressed confusion. If the United States still has a clear chain of command for pandemic response, the White House urgently needs to clarify what it is—not just for the public but for the government itself, which largely finds itself in the dark.
Rather than take tried and true steps for an effective governmental response, Trump, like Salvini and Le Pen, has pointed to closed borders as a solution. He boasted creatively on Fox News earlier this month that his administration “pretty much shut it down coming in from China,” referring to COVID-19-inspired travel restrictions on foreign visitors who had traveled to China in the previous two weeks. The influential American Enterprise Institute is already stoking hawkish conspiracy theories, and anti-Asian racism has been growing alongside the number of coronavirus cases in the West. White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, for some reason, told CNBC that the government had the coronavirus “contained,” with matters “pretty close to airtight.” The government rollout of testing has been perilously slow and opaque. “I think a lot of people, myself included,” one clinical microbiologist told The Washington Post, “think it’s very likely this virus might be circulating at low levels in the United States right now.” The Department of Homeland Security, for its part, is charged with coordinating the government’s public safety approach to disease outbreaks and pandemics, as it does for domestic terrorism. In a painful exchange on Tuesday with Louisiana’s Republican Senator John Kennedy, acting DHS head Chad Wolf bungled basic facts about the disease and its spread, contradicting expert testimony made earlier in the day.
The fact that Trump’s DHS is inept doesn’t mean it can’t be cruel. Like its response to immigration (DHS controls both Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Control), its response to COVID-19 is likely to be some mixture of the two. Any whisper of an outbreak from a neighboring country could see the southern border shuttered completely; outbreaks abroad could widen the existing travel ban to a whole new scale.
Experts estimate that a functional vaccine likely won’t be available for at least a year, if one ever comes. It’s not inconceivable that the nation could be in the midst of a full-blown outbreak when Election Day rolls around, as Jon Stokes pointed out this week at Wired: Failing to adequately prepare precincts for that possibility could spark a full-blown democratic crisis, with calls to postpone the vote or contest results. Dense urban areas—traditionally bastions of Democratic support—are likely to be hardest hit by a pandemic, and a low-turnout, in-person, mid-pandemic election could tilt results even more in favor of more conservative rural districts. The solution here isn’t all that hard, Stokes argued: make mail-in ballots the primary form of voting. But it’ll also require a better-coordinated response than the Trump White House seems either capable of or interested in. If this virus gets as bad as the CDC warns—and especially if it triggers a global recession—the Democratic nominee would be entirely justified in pointing out Trump’s role in both crises.
COVID-19 is a tragedy, causing ample human suffering. It is also a test run for still-larger crises the U.S. and international community face as the earth warms, triggering food shortages, other types of epidemics, and mass migrations. The U.S. has no comprehensive plan for the coronavirus or climate crisis. As with climate, it can be hard to avoid lurching into dystopia in talking about COVID-19: We’ve all probably seen one too many pandemic and disaster flick. But that panic is also perfect fodder for the Trumps, Salvinis, and Le Pens of the world promising protection. To confront these problems—avoiding both crisis demagoguery and preventable deaths—governments will need to implement a credible, compassionate, and coordinated alternative to an incompetent right’s racist fantasies.