RICHARD BUTLER. Covid19 USA: The Human Exchange Rate   

May 8, 2020

Trump has now clarified that the meaning of the disaster that Covid-19 is posing to the US is that it could threaten his re-election. It is not a health problem. He thinks reopening the economy is his path to political salvation.

Cuomo. Source: Zack Seward Flickr

He is pressuring States to reopen their economies no matter what the epidemiologists say. He believes that an increase in deaths from Covid19 would be an affordable price to pay for a reviving economy. He has made this point without knowing what the exchange rate would be.

At 11:30 this morning, May 5th, the Governor of New York State,  Andrew Cuomo, gave his daily public briefing on the pandemic. He has been doing this, seven days a week, for the past two months.

He has made clear that there are two reasons for this: New York, State and City have been the epicentre of the pandemic in the United States and, his belief that factual communication to the people about this emergency is critically necessary and, his responsibility.

His briefing lasts a little over half an hour. It usually has two parts -a factual and statistical analysis of the status of Covid19 In New York and, then, policy proposals and guidance to the community, crucially on mitigation actions. Occasionally he also offers some personal reflections, something of a homily.

The briefings are carried on cable television. They are watched not just by New Yorkers but, across the nation by millions of viewers. They have achieved the status of essential viewing.

My wife and I are beginning our 8th week of lockdown, following Cuomo’s directive; what he calls the “New York pause”. We watch the briefings each day, normally accompanied a more or less continuous chorus of ambulance sirens, from the streets.

Cuomo’s briefings have contrasted sharply with those Trump gave, also daily, purportedly reporting on the work of the White House Corona Virus Task Force. Trump’s show had three characteristics which attracted widespread criticism: they were vastly too long – sometimes reaching 2 hours; he spoke almost exclusively about himself and the economy; he displayed no empathy for any people stricken by the Covid19;  he said virtually nothing about public health and, he bullied and sought to gag the experts who were obliged to provide a backdrop to him (Drs. Fauci and Birx).

Trump has now abandoned appearing at those briefings. His penultimate one was the one in which he suggested that afflicted persons might try drinking or injecting household disinfectant. His subsequent and final appearance lasted ten minutes. He took no questions.

Today, a few hours after the Cuomo briefing, Trump announced that he would be shifting his focus away from the search for containment of the pandemic and instead work on the “reopening” of the United States economy. He has now announced that the White House Corona Virus Task Force would be disbanded.

Trump’s now enthusiastic encouragement to States to remove community restrictions on the operation of businesses and the movement of people, incredibly, ignores his own Administration’s guidelines, drawn up by scientists, on when it might be safe to re-open.

The main model/projection on the future of the pandemic (IHME, Washington University), used by the Centers for Disease Control and virtually all other authorities, foresees that if the social distancing/mitigation guidelines are violated the upsurge in the spread of Covid19 could result in 135,000 further deaths by the end of July, that is, 3,000 deaths per day by June 1st.

It is important to relate these two sets of events of May 5th., Cuomo’s briefing and Trump’s decisions.

Cuomo’s homily of that day was widely noticed because it was so pointed. He had reflected on the stakes at issue in attempts to contain the impact of the Covid19 on Americans and what he recognized, was the need for the economy to be reopened. Amongst the heaviest impacts of the virus on the American people has been the destruction of economic activity it has caused, in particular, that 30 million people are now registered as unemployed.

Cuomo posed the question: What is a human life worth? The answer he gave was that it is “priceless”. He then made clear his view that no amount of economic gain, or indeed loss, could be set against any individual human life.

The task was for governments to continue to mobilize the whole community in actions of mitigation and for testing, contact tracing and isolation to reduce the impact if not eliminate Covid19. The idea that this work would be sacrificed to pressure to “reopen” the economy in ways that could endanger life was an unacceptable exchange rate.

Cuomo’s philosophy is supported by facts. There have been 25,204 deaths in New York in the past two months. The efforts of his government and the people of New York have significantly reduced the spread of Covid19 and reduced the daily death rate. That rate continues to improve. Cuomo is unprepared for this effort to be set aside.

Later in the day, Trump conceded that the steps being taken to open the economy could see an increase in the spread of Covid19 and deaths but implied that this was a price that could be borne.

A close adviser of Trump, former New Jersey Governor Christie stated emphatically a little later that loss of life to clear the way for the reopening of the economy was inevitable and needed to be accepted.

The US is suffering a public health disaster. In this, it is leading the world. In two months, it’s caseload has escalated from a handful of cases to 1.3 million and 72,285 deaths.

This order of magnitude has been shaped, in some measure, by the refusal of Trump to respond to warnings and briefing given him in January. He continues to deny that these well-documented briefings occurred.

February saw no action and when he could no longer ignore the growing reality of the pandemic, he misrepresented it saying on February 26th, that there were only 15 cases which “within a couple of days is going to be down to zero” and on February 27th,“ it’s going to disappear, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear”. There is a video of him making these remarks.

Incidentally, it was in this early period that he praised volubly, the work of both the WHO and China. He has now made them the scapegoats.

The Washington Post fact-checker project continues to keep a cumulative tally of Trump’s false or misleading statements. Their tally now is some 18,000 since he took office; an average in excess of 20 per day.

This pattern of lying or plainly misrepresenting reality has been continued in his and his Administration’s actions on the pandemic. In particular, the repeated claims made about Federal assistance to the States have been wrong. This applies, particularly, to the provision of protective equipment, ventilators and testing capability. The latter is crucial especially given the moves Trump has now encouraged on the ending of social mitigation measures, to re-open the economy.

The fact is testing across the nation remains inadequate and there is no clear knowledge of the fundamental order of magnitude of Covid19 in the US; of how much, how far and where the virus has spread.

Too much of the action taken by the Federal Government during the last two months, that is under the guidance of the White House Task Force, was misdirected including on the basis of political preference for Republican States and/or States Trump considers to be essential to his re-election. And, there was some corruption in the competitive bidding for protective equipment for hospitals and staff, where it was running out.

In these circumstances, Governors of States have led the way. On the West Coast, an alliance for coordinated action has been formed amongst California, Oregon and Washington State.

On the East Coast, Governor Cuomo has brought together seven States; the core triangle of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, plus  Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the North; and Pennsylvania and Delaware in the South

These alliances are born of the extreme exasperation over the failures of the Trump Administration in their response to the urgent needs of the States. This was brought to a head when a few weeks ago when Trump claimed that he had “total authority” over the States.

Cuomo took him on directly pointing out that he should read the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, which gives to the States authority over just about everything within their boundaries, including hospitals. Naturally, Trump then claimed he never said what he had said. Those remarks are also on videotape.

The key immediate concern now for the States in these cooperative alliances and they cross political party lines, is to get Federal funding in the extraordinary circumstances each State faces. At present, the Republican Senate is hesitating to assist Democrat States.

Senate Leader McConnel has said that States should consider declaring bankruptcy and one of his Senate colleagues made clear that they were thinking of Democrat States. The exclusion of States from the emergency allocations being legislated because of pandemic costs could prove to be political dynamite as if any more were needed.

Finally, of interest to Australians, Cuomo has reference positively the Australian health care system. For him, a central reality has been exposed by the pandemic. He said it has become clear to him that New York does not have a health system but rather a series of hospitals. There are 11 public hospitals in New York State and 200 Private. Cuomo has now sought and obtained their agreement, at least for the pandemic period, that they will work together as one.

This is truly a departure in a culture so deeply attached to the private sector for virtually every activity. Maybe they’ll find out that collaboration to provide public goods works, and hasn’t turned them into communists

So now it is verified. Trump is singly focused on the election as if we needed to know this. What is also verified is that he has no intrinsic interest in public health in the US.

Even though Biden’s candidature has shortcomings, public sentiment suggests that enough people recognize the dangers Trump poses to the country to result in him losing the popular vote in November, (as he did in 2016).

The outcome in the electoral college is another matter and this is what Trump is focused on.

Above all, he believes that if he is to win, the economy must have been returned to something like “normal”.

What is incalculable is what Covid19 will do – if at least parts of the economy are reopened unsafely. How would Trump fare if there are deaths at something like the order of magnitude foreseen in the IHME modelling?

We don’t know, we can’t know yet, but we do know this – for Trump, there is no unaffordable human exchange rate, if it can buy an election victory.

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