Of Course the Coronavirus Pandemic is Political

SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is affecting people regardless of country or origin and political affiliation. If you think our response to it shouldn’t be politicized, though, you don’t realize how politicized it already is. (Image Credit: NAIAD/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

I’m not sure if you realized, but there’s some sort of virus going around.

By now, unless you’re living under a rock, you understand that COVID-19, a disease caused by the SARS/coronavirus 2 virus strain, is a global pandemic (and even if you do live under a rock, you might want to get tested if you can afford it). According to the Center for Disease Control, fever, cough, and shortness of breath are common symptoms.

As of March 12, the World Health Organization has confirmed over 125,000 cases of coronavirus disease, with upwards of 4,500 deaths across more than 100 countries, regions, and territories worldwide. What’s worse, as numerous authorities on the subject matter have emphasized, these numbers represent only what is known.

Depending on the availability of testing, those showing symptoms or suspecting they might have the disease after being in contact with people who have tested positive might not be able to confirm they’ve contracted it. Plus, there are those who may be asymptomatic but are still carriers of the disease. Regardless, the tallies stand to get much higher and the scope of the problem much worse.

In no uncertain terms, then, this is serious business and not, as some have suggested, a “hoax” or some elaborate conspiracy designed to bring down President Donald Trump. On that note, if anyone or anything can make Trump’s legitimacy as a leader seem questionable, it’s Trump himself.

It is painfully apparent that Trump and his administration are woefully unprepared for a health emergency of this magnitude. The president has repeatedly undercut his own advisers and medical professionals on the facts surrounding COVID-19, suggesting that a vaccine is nearing availability when the actual timeline points to such an intervention being a year or more away. Trump also has downplayed the gravity of the moment, opining that this coronavirus threat will be gone by April in concert with a rise in temperatures, despite having no evidence that the virus will be susceptible to warmer weather and otherwise failing to appreciate the notion that this strain could return in full force when the weather gets colder again.

Clearly, the United States’s response thus far is indicative of the disorganization and flippant self-servingness of its highest officeholder. For one, the Trump administration disbanded its global health security team after the sudden departure of Timothy Ziemer, the official designated as the country’s leader in the event of a pandemic. Trump has also authorized cuts to the CDC, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Security Council, organizations which all play a role in helping the government respond to a major health crisis. If this weren’t bad enough, in its proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, the White House has outlined further cuts to the CDC and, at this juncture, is sticking to its guns. You know, because we’re not having enough fun as it is.

Given every chance to seem remotely presidential, Trump has severely botched this aspect. From the first mention of COVID-19 as a “foreign virus” that “started in China” in his Oval Office address on the coronavirus disease, the xenophobic overtones and influence of Stephen “Richard Spencer Is My Homeboy” Miller were unmistakable. The haphazard announcement of a 30-day travel ban on most trips from Europe to the United States, aided by Trump’s inability to read a teleprompter because the man won’t admit he needs glasses, is also of questionable utility given that there are already so many cases here.

Speaking of confirmed cases, America faces a shortfall of available testing for the coronavirus, in large part because the Trump administration sought to drag its feet on its response so as to fudge the numbers and not make the president look bad. Instead of using the lag in the proliferation of the virus following its earliest reports from China, whose own initial response to the outbreak deserves admonishment, the Trump administration squandered that time, blaming, of all people, Barack Obama for this mess. Seriously, is there nothing Trump won’t blame Obama for?

In sum and to put it mildly, there’s a lot of noise and disinformation surrounding COVID-19 in America right now. I certainly don’t wish to add to it. More narrowly, though, I’d like to highlight the attitudes of Americans across the political spectrum in relation to coronavirus right now.

As one might expect, there are umpteen refrains from armchair political analysts and professional pundits alike that this health emergency isn’t political. We’re all affected by it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re from China or the United States or Italy or the United Kingdom or South Korea or Iran or what-have-you. COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate and the loss of life and livelihood as a byproduct of this crisis are regrettable independent of where you live, what you look like, or how much money you have or make.

By the same token, as with calls for civility in a political climate marked by dramatic polarization and online interactions that often veer into the realm of personal attacks, abuse, death threats, and doxxing, these pleas are only as good as the intent of the person making them. Notions of “we’re all in this together,” made in good faith, are valuable and inspiring because they evidence a recognition that this pandemic is one we have the ability to address, particularly by working with one another and rejecting the distinctions and principles that might normally divide us. As the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures.

Pledges of unity are therefore double-edged swords, and when wielded in bad faith, serve only to silence conversations we need to be having, especially on behalf of members of marginalized groups. Defenders of President Trump are quick to hide behind the sentiment that in this time of communal suffering, we should put aside our criticisms of one another in service of a common goal in fighting COVID-19.

Discourse restricted in this way, though, deflects blame where blame should be assigned. The Trump administration’s actions and verbiage heretofore have been shameful. We are behind the curve on coronavirus testing and COVID-19 amelioration as a direct result of the president’s deliberate inaction and counterproductive rhetoric designed not to negatively impact the stock market and not make him look weak by proxy. As recent market plunges the likes of which haven’t been seen in decades manifest, meanwhile, we obviously have already crossed that bridge. With every new cancellation or shutdown and with the market gains accrued during Trump’s tenure effectively erased, now is the right time to scrutinize his job performance. It is in the crucible of an event like a global pandemic that we arguably can best judge a leader’s ability and temperament. Trump is failing this test miserably.

The fact of the matter is we’ve heard this kind of politically-motivated inertia before and it’s no less depressing. In the wake of innumerable mass shootings, America has yet to make substantive progress regarding gun control, even as far as the most basic reforms which most Americans agree on (e.g. universal background checks) go. To dismiss desires of Americans on the left, on the right, and everywhere in between to hold Trump accountable for his poor handling of the COVID-19 threat is to make eerily similar arguments against progress merely to cling to an ideology and to ignore the reality of the circumstances at hand.

Bringing former president Barack Obama back into this to illustrate a point, if he were primarily responsible for the systemic failure of our government to address coronavirus, he would be roundly criticized on FOX News and elsewhere in conservative circles for the quality of his administration’s response. Hell, the man once caught flak for using Dijon mustard on his burger. If the roles were reversed, do you have any doubt Obama would be lambasted by Americans from coast to coast? Trump seemingly gets a pass from some because he, under normal circumstances, screws things up and lies about it. It’s not that funny normally, however, and it’s certainly not a laughing matter now. It’s quite literally life or death.

Accordingly, it’s fair to make discourse about America’s response to the spread of COVID-19 political in nature because it already is inextricably linked to politics. Most of our world is, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. In our own daily lives, we wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) expect to get away with things because of our political affiliation or a particular agenda. The same applies to Donald Trump and exceedingly so given that he willingly signed up for the task of leading the country.


In their own addresses on coronavirus after President Trump’s debacle, Democratic Party presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders drew a marked contrast to their potential general election opponent by treating the occasion with the solemnity and measure it deserves.

On his campaign website and in his public remarks, Biden has emphasized the need for “decisive” public health and economic responses to the COVID-19 crisis, highlighting the importance of “trust, credibility, and common purpose” as well as “leadership grounded in science.” He has advocated for free and available testing; the creation of mobile and drive-thru testing sites and temporary hospitals; activating the Medical Reserve Corps; accelerating the production of medicines, tests, and vaccines; allocating resources for health and emergency services workers, including overtime reimbursements; ensuring paid leave for workers and reimbursements to employers; expanding unemployment insurance, employment relief, food relief, medical assistance, loans to small- and medium-sized businesses, child care, mortgage and student loan relief/forbearance, and union health funds; and other forms of mediation. It’s a rather detailed plan.

As for Sanders, he also was highly critical of the Trump administration in his address, stressing the urgency for declaring a national emergency (which Trump has since declared); convening a bipartisan coalition of experts to lead the coronavirus response; and caring for communities most vulnerable to COVID-19, notably nursing home residents/rehabilitation patients, immigration center detainees, and the incarcerated. Like Biden, he supports free testing for coronavirus as well as free vaccines when available.

Sanders too examined the need for funding for paid family and medical leave; expanding community health centers; facilitating private- and public-sector cooperation to ensure the availability of ICU units, medical professionals, and ventilators; establishing safeguards against price gouging, especially with respect to the pharmaceutical industry; augmenting unemployment insurance for employees and independent contractors alike, food assistance programs, and emergency loans to businesses; and placing a moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shut-offs, among other things. As with Biden, there are policy specifics aplenty to be appreciated herein.

For both candidates, the proposed coronavirus response is much more developed than anything the Trump administration has or likely can come up with. As always, “better than Trump” is a low bar to clear. An important distinction to be found between the two, meanwhile, is in the call for structural reforms, the importance of which is magnified by the severity of the problems the United States and the world currently face. Regarding access to high-quality health care for all Americans, the expansion of public programs to meet the need at this juncture is evocative of Medicare for All, an idea certainly not lost on Bernie’s supporters.

The Federal Reserve’s move to inject $1.5 trillion into the markets to fight “highly unusual disruptions” related to coronavirus also eats away at the professed concerns about cost that Sanders’s opponents have used to try to discredit him. What is evidently lacking is not the ability to meet these costs, but rather the political will. As Sen. Sanders tweeted in response to the Fed’s decision, “When we say it’s time to provide health care to all our people, we’re told we can’t afford it. But if the stock market is in trouble, no problem! The government can just hand out $1.5 trillion to calm bankers on Wall Street.” Critics of the backlash to this intervention say it is unfair to call this a “bailout,” but it’s hard to view this as anything but socialism for the rich and for Wall Street speculators.

Following a string of disappointing primary losses on consecutive Tuesdays, Bernie faces an uphill battle in capturing the Democratic Party presidential nomination. While I wouldn’t wish COVID-19 on anyone, though, it draws attention to the necessity of providing health care to everyone as a right as well as the sheer absurdity of saying we can’t pay for things like the cancellation of student debt when we can provide the markets over a trillion dollars in cash infusions with a snap of our fingers.

So, electoral prospects be damned: Bernie Sanders is right on these issues and deserves to continue his campaign as long as he can shine a light on the problems we face as a nation and will face even when we can reasonably say coronavirus has been contained. Here’s hoping he hammers this point home in this weekend’s debate with Joe Biden.

Sorry to get political there.

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