COVID-19 Doesn’t Care About Our Politics

A friend on Twitter asked the following question:

Does the shortage of ventilators/mask[s] show the cruelty and inefficiency of capitalism?  If so, would a centrally planned economy have better outcomes?

My response:

It’s nothing to do with capitalism being cruel or inefficient, and everything to do with what can happen when the profit motive is the main driver of private sector companies involved in the healthcare supply chain, and in healthcare provision.

That combined with incompetently led governments both at the federal level and in some states are why the United States finds itself leading the way in the number of [novel] coronavirus cases.

Even as the total of coronavirus cases worldwide has exceeded 1 million (as of April 2, 2020), it’s too easy to find people trying to use the pandemic in favor of their preferred ideology and against others.  From my vantage point, no ideology is faring particularly well against coronavirus.  Most of the countries at the top of the charts for total cases and new cases are democracies, but the top 10 also includes China (communist), the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Turkey (effectively a dictatorship).

What the coronavirus is highlighting (in addition to the problem of allowing the profit motive to take primacy in healthcare) is the importance of competent government–regardless of what ideology they claim or operate under.  Many articles (including this one) have pointed out that South Korea and the United States reported their first positive COVID-19 case on the same day.  The differing results of their responses couldn’t be more stark.  South Korea has a tiny fraction of COVID-19 deaths compared to the United States, and a very low number of new cases.

Puerto Rico was a harbinger of the botched response to covid-19

In reading this excellent Financial Times piece, I was struck by this paragraph in particular:

People often observed during Trump’s first three years that he had yet to be tested in a true crisis. Covid-19 is way bigger than that. “Trump’s handling of the pandemic at home and abroad has exposed more painfully than anything since he took office the meaning of America First,” says William Burns, who was the most senior US diplomat, and is now head of the Carnegie Endowment.

It struck me as incorrect because I thought almost immediately of the poor federal response to the devastation in Puerto Rico wrought by hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017.  Plenty of news stories at the time (including this one from the year after the storm) focused on Trump throwing paper towels at a crowd of hurricane survivors.  But a closer look at such stories yields many examples of Trump, his administration, and others connected to them operating the same way nearly 3 years ago as they are now in their response to covid-19.

Looking at how the Trump administration talks about death tolls from covid-19 today, I see many similarities to how they talked about death tolls from the hurricanes in 2017. In this US News & World Report story from last month, Trump is quoted saying he’s proud of what his administration has done, as well as insisting the death toll could have been much worse and that no one could have done better. In 2017, the BBC News story I linked earlier recounts Trump telling Puerto Rican government officials that they should be proud of the low reported death tolls from the two storms. This led me to another similarity between the handling of the two crises: under-reported death tolls.

The aftermath of the storms in Puerto Rico is when I first encountered the term “excess mortality”. Researchers from Harvard did a study (including interviews with some 3000 randomly-selected Puerto Rican households the year after the storms) and estimated that some 4600 people died as a result of the damage done by Hurricane Maria due to interruptions in medical care caused by infrastructure damage such as power cuts and impassable roads, and suicides, as compared to the same time period in the previous year. The power cuts led me to yet another similarity between the aftermath of the hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the federal response to covid-19: contracts granted due to political connections instead of competence.

There have been numerous stories (like this one) about GOP fundraiser Mike Gula getting out of the fundraising business to start a company called Blue Flame to sell N95 masks, ventilators, and PPE despite having zero relevant experience. My home state (Maryland) and Trump’s DOJ have both begun investigations into the company after it failed to deliver on contracts it signed. Nearly 3 years ago, a 2-year-old company with 2 employees named Whitefish Energy won a $300 million no-bid contract to restore Puerto Rico’s wrecked power grid. The Interior Department insisted that Secretary Ryan Zinke played no role, despite his personal connections to the CEO of that company. Whitefish would ultimately lose that contract and Secretary Zinke would ultimately resign due to pressure from over a dozen different investigations launched into his conduct while serving as interior secretary.

Another way that Trump’s response to covid-19 was predicted by his response to the hurricanes in Puerto Rico is in how he praised political leaders who played to his ego and blamed those who did not. In this story, Trump is quoted praising then-governor Ricardo Rossello (who had no criticism of federal recovery efforts) while attacking San Juan’s mayor (Carmen Yulin Cruz). His complimentary words to the GOP governors of states (and his attacks on governors Whitmer, Inslee, and others) are very similar.

Further exploration would probably yield more similarities between the botched handling of Puerto Rico’s recovery from the hurricanes and the federal government’s continuing response to covid-19. Sadly, the island is not fully-recovered after 3 years and is now suffering the additional burden of covid-19. Denials of housing assistance by FEMA in the immediate aftermath of the hurricanes is inflicting consequences on Puerto Ricans–all US citizens–to this day.