The first confirmed case of a coronavirus infection in the United States was announced on January 21. Two days later, with the World Health Organization recording 581 confirmed cases worldwide, the Chinese government locked down Wuhan and ordered a travel ban. On January 24, the WHO reported 846 cases and warned that the virus was spreading from human to human outside China. In its daily situation report, it wrote, “WHO assesses the risk of this event to be very high in China, high at the regional level and high at the global level.”
That same day, U.S. senators were invited to a Health Committee briefing on the “novel coronavirus outbreak” from administration officials, including National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, the most knowledgeable and experienced member of the president’s public health team.
Not long after that briefing, at least a few senators sprang into action. Senator Kelly Loeffler, for example, immediately began dumping stock, making 29 transactions over the following weeks, with the first happening that day. While she engaged in this bit of economic disaster preparedness in private, in public, she did and said nothing to prepare her constituents or the country at large for the potential threat of a global pandemic. Throughout February, her staff pushed out press releases with titles like “Loeffler Cosponsors Legislation to Repeal the Death Tax” and promoted local news appearances like one headlined “Fox 5 Atlanta: Sen. Loeffler Supports Withholding Funds to States Over Drivers’ Licenses.”
Senator Richard Burr also acted decisively, dumping, according to reporting from ProPublica, “between $628,000 and $1.72 million of his holdings on Feb. 13 in 33 separate transactions.” Burr is the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which receives daily briefings on the threat of the coronavirus. In January, he had attended the White House briefing with Senator Loeffler. And although Burr was slightly more active about communicating the details of the pandemic than Loeffler was, he, too, did and said nothing that served anyone but himself. On February 7, he (along with Senator Lamar Alexander) published an opinion piece for Fox News insisting that the government was prepared for the threat. “The CDC has developed a diagnostic test that detects coronavirus infections and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is prepared to expedite its review,” they wrote. As The Washington Post would later report, the WHO had by that point shipped 250,000 tests to labs around the world; the CDC had only shipped 160,000 to U.S. labs. Most of those would soon be “deemed unusable,” and “only about 200 of those tests sent to labs would be used.”
Burr was reassuring Americans for the same reason Loeffler mainly ignored the problem: To do otherwise—to convey the actual scope of the threat to their constituents—would’ve spooked the markets.
This month, as we learned just how far and fast Covid-19 has spread within the U.S., economic forecasters began predicting what would happen if the government were to shut down New York and California, or even the entire country, for a period longer than a few days, effectively turning off the economy. Their predictions turned out to be unpleasant.
Goldman Sachs predicts millions of unemployment claims and a 24 percent drop in gross domestic product. These numbers, much more than any numbers from the WHO, seemed to instill a sense of urgency in congressional Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a man singularly unsuited to the moment, roused himself last week to craft an economic rescue package.
The result was, effectively, a $500 billion slush fund designed to be doled out at the sole discretion of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, with no independent oversight, state aid, or way of disclosing who had received corporate aid for six months. Whatever protections were offered to workers were weak. In its design, and in the panicky desperation to pass it without argument, the bill resembled a repeat of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, crafted by people who thought the problem with the original TARP was that it included far too much oversight and transparency.
Part of this is simply a failure to understand how to respond to a real crisis. McConnell has never had to legislate. He has only ever had to obstruct one president’s agenda and confirm another’s judges. His record on passing large bills basically starts and ends with passing a tax cut and failing to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Following that burst of activity early in Trump’s term, McConnell has not even attempted to propose anything more ambitious. He doesn’t know how to draft, let alone pass, a bipartisan bill that would do anything but help the investor class. And after his original deal fell apart over the weekend, McConnell took the floor to whine petulantly about the futures market. Democrats, he warned, were “playing Russian Roulette with the markets.”
Other countries’ governments are doing what they can to guarantee their citizens’ future employment, understanding that mass unemployment and business closures are the true economic threat posed by this crisis. The Nordic social democracies have offered to pay most of the cost of employee salaries so long as companies do not lay them off. Boris Johnson’s Conservative government even plans to adopt the scheme, with the government of the United Kingdom promising to support 80 percent of worker salaries, up to nearly $3,000 a month, as long as firms keep them on the payroll. Our own conservatives seem to consider such proposals to be immoral interference in the natural order.
From the perspective of the American right, a massive government influx of cash to ensure that the cruise industry continues to exist in more or less its present form is an understandable emergency intervention. But to condition any such rescue on protecting the people who work for bailed-out corporations sets a dangerous precedent. The right to lay people off is sacrosanct in America, even if it leads to mass economic immiseration. The economics matter far less than the principle: The boss does what he wants, and the workers carry all the risks.
The GOP is not trying to rescue what we quaintly refer to as the real economy so much as it is desperately working to preserve an economic hierarchy. Conservatives want to ensure that no one important has to take a haircut. An airline “needs” to be rescued not to make sure that all the people who work for it still get their paychecks, but to prevent the largest shareholders from bearing the brunt of the failure and to keep its current executives and directors in charge when the smoke clears.
American leaders now barely seem to understand the concept of a “real economy.” The American economy does not need to be rescued, as in the financial crisis, so much as it needs to be paused—with the government providing a backstop, supporting states and municipalities, workers and businesses, and only allowing the economy to resume, as undamaged as possible, when it is safe to do so. Almost nothing in McConnell’s bill suggested any understanding of what needs to be done. It was solely about goosing the markets and getting the numbers back up. No one remembers that those numbers were supposed to stand in for real things.
There’s more at work here than pure ideology. In a sense, the Republican response to the crisis is a cogent form of disaster response, just as the actions of Senators Loeffler and Burr were a form of disaster preparedness. Not even someone as limited in compassion and imagination as Mitch McConnell can really believe that shoring up the markets and injecting cash into large corporations will be enough to rescue the economy, if we begin to see mass unemployment and even mass death. But if they can stabilize the markets for a little while—if they can get those numbers back up temporarily—everyone who missed their chance to sell high will get another shot. Then the vultures can start picking through the wreckage.