Poverty, Misery, and Death: What the new American exceptionalism means during a pandemic
No other nation has endured as much death from COVID-19 nor nearly as a high a death rate as has the United States. With 4.25% of the world population, America has the tragic distinction of accounting for about 30% of pandemic deaths so far.
And it is the only advanced nation where the death rate is still climbing. Three thousand deaths per day are anticipated by June 1. No other nation has loosened lockdowns and other social-distancing measures while deaths are increasing, as the US is now doing. No other advanced nation was as unprepared for the pandemic as was the United States.
We now know Donald Trump and his administration were told by public health experts in mid-January that immediate action was required to stop the spread of COVID-19. But according to Dr Anthony Fauci, “there was a lot of pushback.” Trump did not act until March 16.
Epidemiologists estimate 90% of the deaths in the US from the first wave of COVID-19 might have been prevented had social distancing policies been put into effect two weeks earlier, on March 2. No nation other than the US has left it to subordinate units of government – states and cities – to buy ventilators and personal protective equipment. In no other nation have such sub-governments been forced to bid against each another.
In no other nation have experts in public health and emergency preparedness been pushed aside and replaced by political cronies like Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who in turn has been advised by Trump donors and Fox News celebrities. In no other advanced nation has COVID-19 forced so many average citizens into poverty so quickly. The Urban Institute reports that more than 30% of American adults have had to reduce their spending on food.
Elsewhere around the world, governments are providing generous income support. Not in the United States. At best, Americans have received one-time checks for $1,200, about a week’s worth of rent, groceries and utilities. Few are collecting unemployment benefits because unemployment offices are overwhelmed with claims.
Congress’s “payroll protection program” has been a mess. Because funds have been distributed through financial institutions, banks have raked off money for themselves and rewarded their favored customers. Of the $350bn originally intended for small businesses, $243.4m has gone to large, publicly held companies.
Meanwhile, the treasury and the Fed are bailing out big corporations from the debts they accumulated in recent years to buy back their shares of stock. Why is America so different from other advanced nations facing the same coronavirus threat? Why has everything gone so tragically wrong?
Some of it is due to Trump and his hapless and corrupt collection of grifters, buffoons, sycophants, lobbyists and relatives. But there are also deeper roots.
The coronavirus has been especially potent in the US because America is the only industrialized nation lacking universal healthcare. Many families have been reluctant to see doctors or check into emergency rooms for fear of racking up large bills.
America is also the only one of 22 advanced nations failing to give all workers some form of paid sick leave. As a result, many American workers have remained on the job when they should have been home. Adding to this is the skimpiness of unemployment benefits in America – providing less support in the first year of unemployment than those in any other advanced country.
American workplaces are also more dangerous. Even before COVID-19 ripped through meatpackers and warehouses, fatality rates were higher among American workers than European. Even before the pandemic robbed Americans of their jobs and incomes, average wage growth in the US had lagged behind average wage growth in most other advanced countries. Since 1980, American workers’ share of total national income has declined more than in any other rich nation.
In other nations, unions have long pushed for safer working conditions and higher wages. But American workers are far less unionized than workers in other advanced economies. Only 6.4% of private-sector workers in America belong to a union, compared with more than 26% in Canada, 37% in Italy, 67% in Sweden, and 25% in Britain.
So who and what is to blame for the worst avoidable loss of life in American history? Partly, Donald Trump’s malfeasance. But the calamity is also due to America’s longer-term failure to provide its people the basic support they need.
Originally published on The Guardian as Under Trump, American exceptionalism means poverty, misery and death