Trump is no longer president, but he and his racism could still be responsible for millions more American deaths from a new pandemic disease. How and why? I will explain in just a moment, but first let’s look at the disease itself.
One reason egg prices are so high right now is because a new strain of bird flu — H5N1 — has popped up among egg-laying chickens. The disease has a shocking mortality rate, leading to the death (both from disease and from euthanizing flocks to stop its spread) of almost 60 million domesticated birds in the US alone, so far.
The virus has mutated enough to infect wild birds, and dead or dying wild birds with H5N1have now been found in 920 counties across all 50 states. It’s also spread to mink in Europe (whose respiratory systems are so similar to ours they’re used for research) and has caused seizures and death among bears in the United States.
The disease also infects and kills humans, although all of the cases so far have been people infected directly from sick animals.
Nonetheless, the numbers are grim: according to the World Health Organization, there have been 863 people infected with H5N1 “bird flu” so far, most of them in Egypt, Indonesia, and Vietnam, and 456 of them — 52.8 percent — have died of the disease. For comparison, Ebola kills about 40 percent of the people infected by it, according to the CDC.
For the H5N1 flu to move from bird-to-human transmission to human-to-human transmission will only require a small mutation in the virus.
It would just have to pick up a gene that’s present in the other flu variants that currently infect people, presumably by infecting a person who’s also already infected with or recovering from a “normal” flu. Like a poultry worker who catches the seasonal flu but goes to work anyway because she doesn’t have paid sick leave.
Odds are that if it stays as deadly as it currently is it wouldn’t spread as rapidly or as widely as a less deadly variety, simply because it would kill its hosts so quickly.
But even if its pathogenicity dropped from 52.8 percent all the way down to 2.5 percent, that would equal the Spanish Flu of the 1918-1920 pandemic that killed 50 million people around the world and an estimated 675,000 Americans when our population was only a third of what it is today.
For comparison, Covid kills 1.4 percent of unvaccinated people who acquire the disease.
To deal with this potential crisis, America should right now be developing H5N1 vaccines in large quantities and begin inoculating workers in factory farms, slaughter, and meat-packing operations. And informing the American people about the possible scope of an N5N1 pandemic.
Instead of going along with government efforts to prepare for and even prevent another pandemic, however, Republican politicians — as the legacy from the way Trump handled Covid — will probably instead try to block CDC, WHO, and HHS efforts.
If their Bird Flu behavior is consistent with past Covid behavior, they’ll be joined in that by DeSantis, who’s even now convened a grand jury to investigate the companies manufacturing Covid medications, and other crackpots across the GOP who’re trying to convince Americans that vaccines are killing people left and right.
Just imagine how they’ll react to a new government effort to vaccinate as many Americans as possible and even mandate vaccines for workers in a position to infect many people (from healthcare workers to waiters and clerks).
Which is where we’ll run into that crisis created by Donald Trump’s racism and lust for dictatorial power that I mentioned earlier. It’s a badly underreported story: most Americans have no idea how one day’s headlines changed the course of our country’s response to Covid, leading to at least 300,000 unnecessary deaths.
While Trump told Bob Woodward how deadly Covid was in January of 2020, he initially lied to the American people about it, hoping to keep the economy going into that election year.
But by March of that year he began behaving as if his administration was actually committed to doing something about Covid.
Trump put medical doctors on TV daily, the media was freaking out about refrigerated trucks carrying bodies away from New York hospitals, and doctors and nurses were our new national heroes.
On March 7th, US deaths had risen from 4 to 22, but that was enough to spur federal action. Trump’s official emergency declaration came on March 11th, and most of the country shut down or at least went partway toward that outcome that week.
The Dow collapsed and millions of Americans were laid off, but saving lives was, after all, the number one consideration. Jared Kushner even put together an all-volunteer taskforce of mostly preppie 20-somethings to coordinate getting PPE to hospitals.
But then came April 7th, the fateful day that changed the course of the pandemic and guaranteed the unnecessary death of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
The New York Times ran a front-page story with the headline: Black Americans Face Alarming Rates of Coronavirus Infection in Some States.
Other media ran similar headlines across America, and it was heavily reported on cable news and the network news that night. Most of the people dying, our nation’s media breathlessly reported, were Black or Hispanic, not white people.
Republicans responded with a collective, “What the hell?!?”
Limbaugh declared that afternoon that:
“[W]ith the coronavirus, I have been waiting for the racial component.” And here it was. “The coronavirus now hits African Americans harder — harder than illegal aliens, harder than women. It hits African Americans harder than anybody, disproportionate representation.”
Claiming that he knew this was coming as if he was some sort of a medical savant, Limbaugh said:
“But now these — here’s Fauxcahontas, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris demanding the federal government release daily race and ethnicity data on coronavirus testing, patients, and their health outcomes. So they want a database to prove we are not caring enough about African Americans…”
It didn’t take a medical savant, of course, to see this coming. African Americans die disproportionately from everything, from heart disease to strokes to cancer to childbirth. It’s a symptom of a racially rigged economy and a healthcare system that only responds to money, which America has conspired to keep from African Americans for over 400 years. Of course they’re going to die more frequently from coronavirus.
But the New York Times and the Washington Post simultaneously publishing front-page articles about that racial death disparity with regard to Covid, both on April 7th, echoed across the rightwing media landscape like a Fourth of July fireworks display.
Tucker Carlson, the only prime-time Fox News host who’d previously expressed serious concerns about the dangers of the virus, changed his tune the same day, as documented by Media Matters for America. Now, he said:
“[W]e can begin to consider how to improve the lives of the rest, the countless Americans who have been grievously hurt by this, by our response to this. How do we get 17 million of our most vulnerable citizens back to work? That’s our task.”
White people were out of work, and Black people were most of the casualties, outside of the extremely elderly. Those white people wanted their jobs back, and if Trump was going to win in November he needed the economy humming again!
Brit Hume joined Tucker’s show and, using his gravitas as a “real news guy,” intoned:
“The disease turned out not to be quite as dangerous as we thought.”
Left unsaid was the issue of to whom it was “not quite as dangerous,” but Limbaugh listeners and Fox viewers are anything but unsophisticated when it comes to hearing dog-whistles on behalf of white supremacy.
Only 12,677 Americans were dead by that day, but now that Republicans knew most of the non-elderly were Black, things were suddenly very, very different. Now it was time to quit talking about people dying and start talking about getting people back to work!
It took less than a week for Trump to get the memo, presumably through Fox and Stephen Miller.
On April 12th, he retweeted a call to fire Dr. Anthony Fauci and declared, in another tweet, that he had the sole authority to open the US back up, and that he’d be announcing a specific plan to do just that “shortly.”
On April 13th, the ultra-rightwing, nearly-entirely-white-managed US Chamber of Commerce published a policy paper titled Implementing A National Return to Work Plan.
Unspoken but big on the agenda of corporate America was the desire get the states to rescind their stay-home-from-work orders so that companies could cut their unemployment costs.
When people file unemployment claims, those claims are ultimately paid by the companies themselves, so when a company has a lot of claims they get a substantial increase in their unemployment insurance premiums/taxes.
If the “stay home” orders were repealed, workers could no longer, in most states, file for or keep receiving unemployment compensation.
The next day, Freedomworks, the billionaire-founded and -funded group that animated the Tea Party against Obamacare a decade earlier, published an op-ed on their website calling for an “economic recovery” program including an end to the capital gains tax and a new law to “shield” businesses from COVID death or disability lawsuits.
Three days after that, Freedomworks and the House Freedom Caucus issued a joint statement declaring that “[I]t’s time to re-open the economy.”
Freedomworks published their “#ReopenAmerica Rally Planning Guide” encouraging conservatives to show up “in person” at their state capitols and governor’s mansions, and, for signage, to “Keep it short: ‘I’m essential,’ ‘Let me work,’ ‘Let Me Feed My Family’” and to “Keep [the signs looking] homemade.”
One of the first #OpenTheCountry rallies to get widespread national attention was April 19th in New Hampshire. Over the next several weeks, rallies filled with white people had metastasized across the nation, from Oregon to Arizona, Delaware, North Carolina, Virginia, Illinois and elsewhere.
One that drew particularly high levels of media attention, complete with swastikas, Confederate flags, and assault rifles, was directed against the governor of Michigan, rising Democratic star Gretchen Whitmer.
Trump lied about the coronavirus and told people it was like the flu and could be cured with hydroxychloroquine, a fairly toxic malaria medicine that actually makes people with Covid get sicker and more likely to die. In states where governors were maintaining mask requirements to save lives, Trump’s rhetoric infuriated his “white trash base” (to quote James Carville).
First they showed up at the Capitol building in Lansing with guns, swastikas, and Confederate flags. Then they plotted to kidnap the governor, hold a mock trial, and televise her execution.
When Rachel Maddow reported that meat packing plants were epicenters of mass infection, the Republican-voting Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court pointed out that the virus flare wasn’t coming from the “regular [white] folks” of the surrounding community; they were mostly Hispanic and Black.
The conservative meme was now well established: this isn’t that big a deal for white people, and you can’t trust public health officials, doctors, or the CDC who are all trying to protect vulnerable Black people.
About a third of the people the virus killed were old white folks in nursing homes. Which, commentators on the right said, could be a good thing for the economy because they’re just “useless eaters” who spend our Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security tax money but are on death’s door anyway.
For example, Texas’s Republican Lt. Governor Dan Patrick told Fox News:
“Let’s get back to living… And those of us that are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves.”
A conservative town commissioner in Antioch, CA noted that losing many elderly “would reduce burdens in our defunct Social Security System…and free up housing…”
He added, “We would lose a large portion of the people with immune and other health complications. I know it would be loved ones as well. But that would once again reduce our impact on medical, jobs, and housing.”
Then came news that the biggest outbreaks were happening in prisons along with the meat packing plants, places with even fewer white people (and the few whites in them were largely poor and thus disposable).
Trump’s response to this was to issue an executive order using the Defense Production Act (which he had refused to use to order production of testing or PPE equipment) to force the largely Hispanic and Black workforce back into the slaughterhouses and meat processing plants.
African Americans were dying in our cities, Hispanics were dying in meat packing plants, the elderly were dying in nursing homes.
But the death toll among white people, particularly affluent white people in corporate management who were less likely to be obese, have hypertension or struggle with diabetes, was relatively low.
And those who came through the infection were presumed to be immune to subsequent bouts, so we could issue them “COVID Passports” and give them hiring priority.
As an “expert” member of Jared Kushner’s team of young, unqualified volunteers supervising the administration’s PPE response to the virus noted to Vanity Fair’s Katherine Eban:
“The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy.”
It was, after all, exclusively Blue States that were then hit hard by the virus: Washington, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
Former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s grandson Max Kennedy Jr, 26, was one of the volunteers, and blew the whistle to Congress on Kushner and Trump. As Jane Mayer wrote for The New Yorker:
“Kennedy was disgusted to see that the political appointees who supervised him were hailing Trump as ‘a marketing genius,’ because, Kennedy said they’d told him, ‘he personally came up with the strategy of blaming the states.’”
So the answer to the question of why, by June of 2020, the United States had about 25% of the world’s COVID deaths, but only 4.5% of the world’s population, is pretty straightforward: Republicans chose to be just fine with Black people dying, particularly when they could blame it on Democratic Blue-state governors and a vast liberal conspiracy at the CDC.
And once they put that strategy into place in April, it later became politically impossible to back away from it, even as more and more Red State white people became infected.
Everything since then, right down to Trump’s December 26th, 2020 tweet (“The lockdowns in Democrat run states are absolutely ruining the lives of so many people — Far more than the damage that would be caused by the China Virus.”), has been a double-down on death and destruction, now regardless of race.
So here we are facing the early warning signs of a possible new pandemic that could be even more deadly than COVID. And because Trump chose to politicize the COVID pandemic, only 27 percent of Republicans today trust the CDC (compared with over three-quarters of Democrats).
Only 34 percent of Republicans today even trust their own doctors or medical science in general, which helps explain why so many were enthusiastic to take horse dewormer or antimalarial drugs in a futile effort to stop COVID.
And, of course, there are the Republicans in Congress who will recoil from any mention of planning for another pandemic. Since such preparations would include costs, and that may increase pressure to raise income taxes on billionaires above their current 3%, it’ll be a fight.
Nonetheless, the Biden administration should be moving on this now, as Zeynep Tufekci so eloquently noted in last Friday’s New York Times. The best time to stop a pandemic is before it starts.
Alya Inside and Guitar Photography
© Thom Hartmann, used with permission. Originally published on The Hartmann Report as How Trump Could Make a Bird Flu Pandemic More Deadly Than Covid
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