The now infamous coronavirus is sickening people and exposing key weaknesses of the United States. The one positive aspect is that the coronavirus has a relatively low mortality rate (currently estimated to be about 2%) compared to viruses such as Ebola. This makes it deadly enough to be taken seriously but not deadly enough to severely damage civilization. Crudely put, most of us will live to see the mistakes of our leaders and our health care system.
One foundational weakness is that the United States tends to see health care as a private good rather than as something as critical to the United States as its military and economy. This has long been the case but is even more so under Trump. The Trump administration, via budget and policy choices, has weakened the CDC and our national defense against pandemics. While medical professionals and scientists will work heroically to address this virus, they are largely operating in a way analogous to a militia with limited support from the federal government. While the federal effort will (one hopes) expand, the basic attitude needs to change: disease, like climate, must be seen as an integral part of national defense and the well being of the country. This will require good leadership.
Sadly, good leadership is lacking at the highest levels. Trump is not interested in the virus, aside from its potential impact on his re-election. He has provided incorrect and misleading information to the public, such as expressing confidence that the warm weather of April will take care of the virus. While warmer weather does sometimes have an impact on illnesses, they do not go away and tend to return. Trump has appointed Pence to head up the response—while it allows him to scapegoat Pence if things go bad, Pence’s track record with illness is terrible. Trump has created a low-information, low-competence griftocracy which values obedience to the whims of Trump over all other values (like the good of the country). As such, things are likely to go very badly as Trump and his fellows endeavor to lie and blunder their way through the crisis, all the while looking for opportunities to grift.
The for-profit health care system is likely to prove extremely vulnerable to this virus. As anyone who works in health care will attest, the for-profit operations are designed to run at the very edge—having just enough people and resources to address the typical case load while maximizing profits. While health care professionals step up in time of disasters, the system is designed for maximum profit, not for resiliency in the face of a crisis. Keeping resources and personnel available to respond to a crisis is not good for short term profits but is critical to the defense of the United States. In the past, the United States approached its military defense in a similar way: a small force on active duty and desperate call ups and drafts in time of crisis. Now we maintain a standing military that is (one hopes) ready for a crisis. We need to take the same approach t0 health care. This might mean changing the focus from maximizing profits to, well, providing health care.
Another factor is that many Americans cannot afford health care nor can they afford to take time off from work because of illness (or for a quarantine). This means that many infected Americans will not know they are infected, will not get treatment and will spread the virus as they suffer through a workday while ill. Many Americans rely on schools as their primary child care; when the schools close, they will also face the challenge of addressing that problem.
While some might rush to accuse me of advocating some sort of socialist health care plan and a radical change to the economy, what I propose is something that a profit-focused capitalist should agree with, provided they can think in the long term. As China has shown, an illness of this sort can cause havoc on an economy. The stock market has been reeling in response and the pandemic has not even hit its stride. Laying aside concerns about human suffering, love of money should serve as a powerful motivating factor: building a solid defense against pandemics will provide a significant return on investment by providing resilience. Even those who hate the idea of everyone getting health care at affordable prices should accept that it would be worth it to keep the corporations and stock markets humming along and making money.