The United States Is More Vulnerable Than Ever to Deadly Diseases

The United States Is More Vulnerable Than Ever to Deadly Diseases

The United States Is More Vulnerable Than Ever to Deadly Diseases

In a bout of bipartisan neglect, Washington has cut billions from our public-health infrastructure over the past decade.


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The biggest Signal this week is, of course, the Senate trial of Donald Trump. But you, dear readers, can watch that for yourselves on any news channel. There’s also a lot of Noise surrounding the trial. A hot-and-bothered Trump tweeted over 130 times from Davos on Wednesday.

Let’s cut through the fog and get to the other Signals. First off, there’s the new coronavirus raging in parts of China, and the increasingly frenzied efforts to stop it from spreading globally—cities on lockdown, public gatherings in Beijing banned, health checks at airports around the world.

You’ve probably read about the outbreak. But you may not know how badly prepared the United States is to counter a pandemic, as a result of bipartisan neglect of our public health infrastructure. The highlights: In 2012, the Obama administration reallocated billions of dollars away from the Prevention and Public Health Fund to make up for cuts to Medicare’s physician payments. In 2018, Congress cut the PPHF by another $1 billion, and the Trump administration then diverted additional millions away from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In response, the CDC cut its global epidemic prevention efforts by 80 percent, radically downsizing its operations in 39 of the 49 countries it had a presence in, including China and Congo, currently the epicenter of Ebola. Last year, Trump proposed slashing the DHS budget by another 12 percent and the CDC budget by 10 percent.

The result of this dangerous downsizing: As the world stands on the verge of a new epidemic, the United States has 50,000 fewer local public-health employees than it did in 2008. Instead of stopping an outbreak early, America’s now reduced to taking the temperature of travelers at major airports.

Talking of airports, this week Customs and Border Protection descended further into lawlessness: When 24-year-old Iranian student Mohammad Shahab Dehghani Hossein Abadi arrived at Boston’s Logan Airport on the way to Northeastern University, where he was enrolled, he was detained. The ACLU secured a court order blocking his deportation—but instead of abiding by the order, CBP simply bundled him onto a plane and flew him back to Iran.

Trump’s use of immigration as a wedge issue this election season is intensifying; now he’s boasting that he plans to dramatically expand his Muslim travel ban. According to press reports, he may even include non-Muslim-majority countries such as Belarus and Myanmar. And now the State Department has given US embassies abroad the power to deny visas to pregnant women, arguing that they would otherwise take advantage of birthright citizenship laws.

The last Signal today is the Guantánamo trials, in which the architects of the US torture programs have testified for the first time on the witness stand. The testimony of psychologist Dr. James Mitchell—one of two designers of the waterboarding and broader torture regime—explaining and defending the use of torture, and detailing how he invited CIA officials to witness the pain-infliction methods they were ordering him to administer, is some of the most chilling courtroom evidence I have ever read. It shows, in intimate detail, how the US government embraced criminal methods in the wake of 9/11. Mitchell’s argument on the witness stand that the ends justify the means is as morally cretinous as some of the testimony from Nazi bureaucrats during the Nuremberg trials.

And now back to the Noise: As I wrap up this column, the House managers are about to start day two of their case against the president. But if yesterday’s antics are anything to go by, several GOP senators will forgo their constitutional duty to listen to the evidence and leave the hearings to appear on Fox News to defend the president’s “perfect” phone call.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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