Stories of American planning and ingenuity abound. From the mighty wartime mobilisation in WWII to the Cold War and military preparedness to space travel, Americans have always enjoyed a narrative that by and large held true. Sure, there were the gaping holes in that narrative, of the bitter loss in Vietnam for example, that broke through the sunny retellings. More recently, every new calamity, from floods and hurricanes to fires and tornadoes, seems to take away from the “America Shining” story.
When facing crises in the past, the country seemed to have a plan. During the Cold War, communities prepared for nuclear armageddon and, even today, neighbourhoods train for earthquake preparedness in California, not to mention the routine fire drills in various institutions. To the outsider, all the preparation spoke of confidence, of control, of planning and so much more — even if at times one wondered if it was hubristic to plan for nuclear holocaust or to face the fury of nature in the age of climate change.
But the current response to Covid-19 is unparalleled in its unpreparedness/sloppiness. It is a debacle at many levels, from the White House to the local school administrators. The nation is completely unprepared even as news from China kept streaming in for the past two months. What explains this failure?
The cruise ship Grand Princess is docking in nearby Oakland, California, to offload some of the critically ill passengers before going off to the high seas again. Local officials have been airlifting medicines and supplies to the ship. The Trump administration has been sending mixed messages about the fate of the passengers. The cruise ship, it would seem, is more than an appropriate metaphor for a nation unprepared. Across the land, federal, state, and local officialdom is giving out the usual tepid cautions but the eventual reality of a regional shutdown looms. One by one, places of work and social life are being shut down.
Precarious Masses, Scribal Elite
The spread of this disease will expose the fault lines of a divided America. The scribal elite —knowledge workers of all kinds — in Silicon Valley and other urban hubs have a choice of ‘telecommuting’ from the comfort of their homes. The very technologies that they produce in the age of web 2.0 worsen inequities. Amazon, Google and other technology companies have asked their workers to work from home. Universities and colleges are moving to online education platforms. So if you are educated and work in knowledge hubs, you are more likely to have the choice, time, and the ability to weather this. If you are not, then you are at a higher risk for contraction of the virus.
The spread of the virus and the impending quarantines by the government will worsen the lives of the poor mostly. The thousands of homeless in the SF Bay Area are vulnerable as they lack the basic sanitary conditions. The many restaurant workers, those in the informal sector and in retail have no choice but to show up to work. The businesses, if they close, will also affect their abilities to pay for their minimum wage workers. The school districts, that their kids attend, will be forced to remain open for as long as possible. For many, shutting down schools is not simply a public health issue; it is also an issue of precarity. In New York, thousands of [homeless] students get their only meal of the day at school, thus leaving the authorities in a quandary. Thousands of undocumented workers across this land do not have access to medical care. Donald Trump has punished them for using even the little access they may have had to medical care.
The privatisation of US health — from health insurance to pharmaceuticals to the medical systems — is likely to have its comeuppance in the coming days. In the last two decades, the rate of uninsured has shot up drastically. Just in California, nearly 40% of Central American immigrants lack access to any healthcare. In the aftermath of natural calamities, fictional corporations floated by political insiders cash in on the minimal oversight and crisis. Major sections of the US government, particularly defence, now is in the hands of private corporations that parasitically feed on the public funds to be issued during wars and natural calamities. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were privatised years ago, and contracting of the US state, domestically and globally, is likely to be once again a central story in the US response to Covid-19. The contractors, as in previous instances, will buy influence by creating expertise and shaping elections.
Beyond this grim story of the partitions of American work life, there is something more sinister. Liberal observers in the US have been decrying the lack of action as well as lamenting Trump’s unwillingness to defer to scientists. But there is a different side to this. Trump’s appearance of inaction is an effort to pander to an important electoral base: Christian nationalists. He is obviously more concerned about the upcoming general elections in November than in formulating a concerted public health action. Through his seeming lack of concern and preparation, Trump is quite possibly channelling the values of the evangelical Christian voters. Most importantly, evangelical Christians blame gay and lesbian Americans for the pandemic. Some have even labelled the virus “homovirus,” reaching back into the common practice of blaming infectious outbreaks upon sexual minorities. Some have begun peddling their own (probiotic) medications that claim to cure patients in 12 hours.
Overall, conservative Christian pastors have been voicing assurances that this virus will be under control and soon. One pastor opined that “the illness is a consequence of living in a fallen world.” Another optimistically remarked that “this is not God’s plan” and yet another claimed that “since Trump honors Israel” the United States would be minimally affected.
It is important to realise that this is the world Trump is speaking from and speaking to. The Christian nationalism that shapes the contours of this kind of talk is a political project against minorities, immigrants, women, gays and the generic democrat. During the Obama era, evangelicals held up the Ebola virus, which originated in Africa, as the sign of a fallen world under an “African” president (Obama). Few know (or remember) the deep resonance such apocalyptic talk has within the circles of American conservatives.
Trump’s man in charge of the Federal government’s response to Covid-19, Vice-President Mike Pence, is himself an evangelical Christian. So far, he seems much more concerned with scrubbing the media image of his boss and appeasing the evangelical base. Last month, at a political rally, he exclaimed, “I am a Christian, a conservative, and a republican” obviously alluding to his priorities as an evangelical catholic. In the coming months, you will see the administration balance its various constituencies, and the evangelicals—along with their aversion to science— are central to the Republican strategy going forward.
Inevitable questions about American scientific capacity and planning are clearly visible. Perhaps there is another level to consider. The crisis is not just American; it is a crisis of modernity. Our ability to plan, our technological prowess, and our ability to exploit natural resources seem to be reaching a point of no return.
(The author is Associate Professor, Department of History, San Francisco State University, San Francisco)