Beware the light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel. Evolution is playing nasty riffs on the coronavirus, and falling infection rates could be reversed if the more transmissible and virulent British and South African variants become fully naturalized—or if a dangerous California strain, awkwardly known as B.1.427/B.1.429, spreads to the rest of the country. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington recently warned that the national Covid death toll could rise as high as 654,000 by May Day.
Other estimates are rosier, but we must remember that current mortality is more than twice as high as what was modeled last spring as a worst-case scenario. By the end of next summer, the viral book of the dead will almost certainly have as many or more entries as the number of Americans who died in battle between 1775 and 2019 (666,441) or perished in the flu pandemic of 1918 to 1919 (675,000).
Was any of this carnage avoidable? Certainly many American wars should never have been waged, but the Spanish flu’s lost souls predated the discovery of the influenza virus (1933), and the desperate campaign against its spread was largely fought in the dark. Not so with our current plague. According to a recent, widely publicized report in The Lancet, about 40 percent of our Covid-19 mortality “could have been averted had the US death rate mirrored the weighted average of the other G7 nations.”
The Lancet’s commission, set up in 2017 to monitor the Trump administration’s health policy impacts, found that “instead of galvanizing the US populace to fight the pandemic, President Trump publicly dismissed its threat (despite privately acknowledging it), discouraged action as infection spread, and eschewed international cooperation.”
This is a welcome judgment, but misleading in some respects. Trump not only sabotaged and discredited the efforts of public health officials, but did so with an obvious political purpose: to expand a right-wing base already built on the foundations of climate denialism, religious superstition, and the perception that most scientists are the servants of secretive elites.
This initially seemed like completely dumb politics, choosing to play to a fanatic fandom rather than to the anxious majority of Americans threatened by illness and unemployment. The Democrats should have immediately tied the knot between health and income, promoting a national pandemic strategy as the only path to save the economy. But for the most part, they didn’t.
Having abdicated frontline leadership to the poorly resourced states, the White House was then able to turn the tables by making war on Democratic governors’ efforts to enforce mask mandates and school and workplace closures. The Save Our Country Coalition launched mob attacks on state capitols, while red-state crowds rejoiced at unmasked Trump rallies.
The Lancet seems willing to charge only negligent manslaughter when second-degree murder would be more appropriate. The 200,000 preventable deaths estimated by the British medical journal were the victims of an election strategy designed to play off jobs against pandemic prevention. In the event, 74 million voters drank the Kool-Aid.
But Trump will never face a Nuremberg moment for these crimes. No American president ever has. Preparing the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon in 1973, nine Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee joined the Republicans to reject John Conyers’s proposal to make Nixon’s secret and illegal air war on Cambodia one of the charges. Indict the burglar, they decided, not the bomber.
Although Merrick Garland has signaled his commitment to continue the investigation of the January 6 putsch, I’m unaware that any Democrat has proposed a criminal investigation of the White House’s role in Covid-19’s spread. Nor have the families of US Covid victims yet banded together, as they have in Britain, to demand an inquest with real teeth and political consequence.
In the meantime, Republican majorities in statehouses are escalating their campaigns against mask mandates and school closures while going to the courts to strip governors of their emergency powers. The American Legislative Exchange Council is helping to write the legislation, Tea Partiers provide the protesters, and Astroturf think tanks like FreedomWorks continue to link ersatz populism to billionaire super PACs.
Where is the countermovement?