Reopening the Economy before Mass Testing is the New Gun Rights-Style US Death Cult
Egged on by President Trump, the majority of US states have at least partially reopened their economies. Non-essential businesses and even schools in some states are opening their doors, exposing workers, customers, and students to COVID-19.
This is happening despite repeated warnings from public health officials that it will not be reasonably safe to resume social activities until mass testing and contact tracing are available in the US. Despite Trump’s claims that states have all they need for testing, governors on both sides of the aisle have repeatedly said testing is not where it needs to be to keep Americans safe. Harvard researchers’ estimates indicate dozens of states would need to ramp up testing by as much as 10,000 more tests per day to identify most people infected “in a timely manner” and prevent local outbreaks from surging.
Against this backdrop, the New York Times reported today that the Trump administration is well aware that reopening the economy will cost thousands of lives. Private projections based on Centers for Disease Control models suggest the US will hit 3,000 daily deaths by June 1, up from about 1,750 now, and 200,000 new cases per day, up from about 25,000 now.
The upshot is simple: To revive economic activity, ideally giving the stock market and GDP a boost while driving unemployment down before the November election, the Trump administration and state-level politicians, including some Democrats, are willing to let tens of thousands of Americans die — wholly unnecessarily. Opening the economy before mass testing and contract tracing are available is the new, uniquely American death cult, a peer to the gun rights movement: a willful political choice to let tens of thousands of people die in the name of a self-defeating conception of freedom.
As New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel put it, “The US virus response feels so much like our response to gun violence. … We move on and just learn to accept a level of human loss that other countries won’t tolerate.”
Some will object that a so-called second pandemic of deaths of despair from unemployment and endless isolation would be even more costly to Americans’ well-being than loosening social distancing requirements before public health experts agree it is safe to do so. The flaw in this argument is that the US government is perfectly capable of taking steps to make financially afflicted Americans whole and mitigate long-term isolation. It is possible for the US to develop the testing and tracing infrastructure required to let Americans safely resume much economic activity in the coming months; it also possible for the government to safeguard people’s finances and health until resuming work is possible. The problem is that elected officials, especially the Trump administration and congressional Republicans, refuse to take those life-saving measures.
On the financial front, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal released a proposal weeks ago, the Paycheck Guarantee Act, that would have the federal government cover 100% of businesses’ payroll costs up to a whopping $100,000 per worker for at least three months. “Mass unemployment is a policy choice,” Jayapal told Vox, noting that similar measures, which help both businesses and workers, are already in effect across Europe. The idea even has some bipartisan support, as Republican Senator Josh Hawley released a similar proposal.
But while Democrats push for the next round of stimulus to include $1 trillion for local and state governments (which pay millions of teachers, cops, and firefighters), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell accuses them of pursuing “partisan wish lists.” Rather than helping workers make ends meet, McConnell’s number-one priority, his “red line,” appears to be protections against lawsuits for businesses, a handout to corporate executives and big-money donors at the expense of worker safety. Democratic political strategist Dan Pfeiffer called Republicans’ economic agenda ahead of the next stimulus bill the “Freedom to Kill Workers Act.”
Yet it’s not just Americans’ economic security that anti-social distancing pols are lying about when they say our only choice is to open up now or condemn workers and businesses to financial ruin. The Trump administration is also effectively choosing to prolong the need for social distancing by refusing to spearhead development of the testing and tracing resources needed to scale down social distancing without hazardous effects. Failing to develop testing infrastructure of the kind that massively limited human suffering in places like South Korea was the original sin of the Trump administration’s ineffective response to the pandemic. Trump’s unwillingness, as the nation’s leader, to take the lead on testing continues to pave the way toward tens of thousands of avoidable deaths.
A president with a baseline sense of responsibility would marshal the vast resources of the federal government to develop the testing and tracing capacities we need. But Trump would rather pass the buck to states — while encouraging them to reopen prematurely — than take on the tough job he was elected to do or even hand off the responsibility to professionals prepared to sort through the details.
Federal officials recognize that states will largely be unable to ramp up testing to the levels required “unless the federal government takes direct responsibility,” Ashish K Jha, faculty director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told the Guardian. But just as Congress is choosing not to protect businesses and workers financially, the White House is choosing to prolong the need for social distancing by refusing to take responsibility for testing.
From this position of deadly fecklessness, Trump is now urging state leaders to “liberate” their people, a tragic exhortation almost comic in its senselessness.
Like the freedom to own weapons of mass murder, a right that makes America the site of unparalleled violence in developed countries, the freedom to go to work in the midst of a pandemic is our new death cult. The lives lost as a result of it will have been entirely preventable.