On March 27th, Donald Trump invoked the Defence Production Act to direct General Motors to manufacture ventilators desperately needed by hospitals treating victims of Corvid-19.
Just a couple of weeks earlier, on March 15th, Trump had dismissed calls for action to prevent the spread of the disease. The whole coronavirus thing was a “hoax.” His priority was to “re-start the economy.” The Democrats, he alleged, were overplaying the virus and underplaying the economy in an effort to damage his chances of re-election.
Over much the same period, British Prime Minister Boris Johnston went from mocking the measures doctors were pleading for—boasting that he’d visited a hospital treating Covid-19 patients and had shaken hands with everybody he’d bumped into—to executing a sharp U-turn and lecturing citizens on social responsibility and the necessity of following medical advice.
Both Trump and Johnston are sexist, racist, boorish, bigoted bullies. But to focus on these aspects of their character would be to miss the main point. Trump and Johnston behave in the same way because they share the same ideology.
Operating within the bounds of neo-liberalism, the health service in both countries was in bits long before the word ‘coronavirus’ entered common speech. As many as 30 million Americans have no health insurance whatsoever. One 19-year-old boy stricken with Covid-19 died last week while awaiting treatment. Because he wasn’t covered, he’d been put to the back of the queue.
As the Irish-American writer Danny Cassidy put it:
This is a bad country to die in.
Bernie Sanders has been relentlessly attacked for advocating a major hike in State spending on health facilities and free medical care for all. The attacks from Democratic Party bosses have been almost as virulent as any from Trump. Elizabeth Warren, promoted during the Primaries as a “progressive” alternative to Sanders, told him on a TV debate that he was
Jeremy Corbyn received the same treatment during last December’s UK election. “Pie in the sky,” jeered Tories and tabloid columnists. He must think there’s a magic money tree. He would run the economy into the ground, etc.
Prominent Labour Party figures cheered the Tories on. His big-spending policies made the party “unelectable.” His plans might sound attractive, but
Where’s the money going to come from, eh?
In both countries, the main parties of the Right have been implacably hostile to the public sector, wanting the ‘market’ to dictate all social priorities. In both countries, too, the parties of the establishment Left have likewise been committed to market economics, albeit with a softer approach and, up to a point, a willingness to compromise.
Labour PM Tony Blair set the tone when he followed Margaret Thatcher in flogging chunks of the health and social care system to private companies with zero interest in providing care but a proven record in ripping the public off. Subsequent Labour leaders took the same stance—until, to their chagrin, Corbyn came along.
The Tories have never had any time for the NHS. They fought it line by line when it was introduced in 1947. It was their determination to strangle the NHS at birth which promoted the Labour Health Minister of the day, Aneurin Bevan, to snarl across the dispatch box,
Tories are vermin.
You don’t hear that sort of common sense from ‘moderate’ Labour leaders today.
The NHS has survived and remains the most cherished institution in the UK. But after years of verminous rule, it was already in a weakened state when coronavirus struck—understaffed and with a dire shortage of basic equipment.
The unpreparedness didn’t arise from the suddenness of the onset of the illness, but from the privatisation and austerity policies imposed over the years. Keeping reserve stocks of breathing equipment against the possibility of a surge in respiratory illness would seem common sense to doctors, nurses and the general public. But to the bosses of the health trusts and their political masters and lobbyists, buying in costly machinery and letting it lie idle made no sense.
What mattered was staying within budget, holding spending down, keeping the private operators sweet.
The same pattern is seen in even starker terms in the U.S. When it became impossible to deny the scale of the coronavirus crisis, a desperate scramble began for masks, gowns, test kits, ventilators etc. Individual States were pitted against each other. Prices soared. The market for medical supplies descended into the chaos of deepening desperation surrounded by rampant greed.
But even then, Trump, worshipping at the altar of private enterprise, set his face against State intervention. Instead, he invited companies including General Motors to fill the gaps by switching production to ventilators, masks etc.
It was only when GM reported that it couldn’t produce the equipment in the time available that Trump, under pressure from the public and from his own medical advisers, issued his Defence Production Act edict. But he shrank away still from any suggestion that the State should step in and take control. That would be ‘socialism.’ Instead, he invited GM and other potential manufacturers to tender for contracts from public health providers.
Meanwhile, all across the land, the virus had been multiplying, spreading, multiplying again. Trump’s addiction to the market had further frayed the health system, pushing the death toll higher.
In Britain, by the time the pandemic arrived, the number of beds in the NHS had fallen to its lowest-ever level, down from 144,455 when the Tories took over in June 2010 to 127,225 in November last year. NHS unions, community groups and Left-wing activists had opposed the cuts, backing strikes and organising public demonstrations and pickets. But on-the-street opposition never attracted support from the political mainstream. “The country can’t afford it,” was their constant mantra.
The connivance of Democrats in the U.S. and Labour leaders in the UK smoothed the way for Trump and Johnson to wreck public health provision and thus put the elderly, the sick and the vulnerable in dire peril as the pandemic approached.
It is the sick society we live in, based not on concern for people but on a competitive drive for profit which ensured that an epidemic became a threat to life itself.
When we emerge from this, we should settle our account with capitalism and its bellowing cheerleaders in appropriate style—knee on chest, thumb in eye.