Power, Profit and Politics of the Pandemic
By Ray Cunneff
In the five years or so that I’ve been writing political commentary, I’ve decided that whatever journalistic talent I may have is in pattern recognition, the ability to connect-the-dots between media stories that have been reported piecemeal and begin to see how those pieces might fit together. Watch what they do, not what they say.
So when President Donald Trump, without a shred of evidence, accused hospitals and healthcare workers of “hoarding” COVID-19 medical supplies, or suspecting that masks, gloves, gowns and ventilators may be “going out the back door”, I recognized it as just one more example of his “projection”, and the way he and those around him think, part of Trump’s psychopathology and longstanding predatory, “transactional” business model.
(I devoted an entire chapter in my book to it, “Projection Is Confession”.)
In March, President Trump had instructed states to obtain their own supplies in order to minimize their requests from the Strategic National Stockpile, a surprising and unprecedented position that resulted in local authorities scrambling to place large orders of ventilators, masks, and other personal protective equipment.
When Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, someone utterly unqualified to be appointed by the president to coordinate the distribution of those medical supplies, at a time when blue-state governors realized they were facing desperate shortages beds, staff and equipment needed to respond adequately to the coronavirus outbreak and the potentially massive loss of life, it seemed just another puzzle-piece of the Trump regime’s institutionalized incompetence.
My first reaction was snarky, “now that he’s solved Middle East peace”, or “taking a break from evicting his tenants now that they cannot make their rent”.
But then when Kushner spoke at a press briefing last week in reference to the national stockpile, he uttered a stunningly candid and head-spinning comment. He said, “The notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be ‘our’ stockpile. It’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use.” Except that’s exactly what the Strategic National Stockpile was designed to do. What was going on here?
Then in early April, we learned the U.S. had sold more medical equipment to China in January and February than any other time in the preceding decade – $17.5 million worth of face masks, $13.6 million in surgical garments, and $27.2 million worth of ventilators – leaving the U.S. facing dire shortages of protective equipment while the pandemic roared across the globe and the president engaged in a series of bitter confrontations, particularly over the lack of adequate ventilators.
Also in early April there was a curious story in which German Chancellor Angela Merkel accused the Trump regime of an “act of piracy” for seizing a cargo plane in Thailand loaded with medical supplies bound for Germany. That report was followed shortly thereafter by a similar complaint from French president Emanuel Macron about a shipment of medical supplies confiscated by Trump forces in China. WTF?
Simultaneously, complaints erupted from several (mostly blue) states in the U.S. that the federal government was intercepting shipments of medical supplies that they had ordered, without explanation. Trump had put the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in charge of deciding which states were most in need of equipment from the national stockpile, replacing the Department of Health and Human Services.
Since then, there have been numerous reports of FEMA or the federal government itself diverting thousands of pieces of vital medical equipment from the states that ordered them, again without explanation. Needless to say, state representatives said the situation had caused chaos and dismay.
So where were these shipments going? It did not appear that they were going to the Strategic National Stockpile, which Trump officials insisted had been “severely depleted”. The answer came in the emergence of third-party ‘distributors’ who set up a kind of eBay auction, in effect a bidding war between the states, communities and hospitals that drove up the prices tenfold.
The rationale appears to be at least partly ideological. In conservative orthodoxy, the idea of a national stockpile to be supplied to states in an emergency is anathema. Even in a declared national emergency in which thousands of Americans are dying, right-wing ideology frowns upon “nationalizing” the response.
Like so many other “socialist” government services, the right-wingers insist these programs must be privatized. You appoint a middle-man, a ‘distributor’, who takes a cut of every transaction and drives up the price by selling to the highest bidder.
In Trump World, the question is far simpler. Where’s the profit and political leverage in it? So… Trump says the states should buy their own COVID-19 medical equipment. FEMA refuses to centralize distribution of the equipment, then seizes the equipment that the states, municipalities had managed to purchase independently. Private distributors then force them to bid against each other as part of the traditional “commercial supply chain”.
In an attempt at its defense, FEMA insisted that this is not the way it’s usually done. In the past, they gave needed equipment and financial aid directly to the states. Now 50% of what FEMA is flying in from overseas goes to private companies which sell it to states that offer the highest dollar.
The final piece of the puzzle is Trump himself, the narcissist sociopath who demands slavish adulation, obsequious flattery in exchange for transactional quid pro quo ‘favors’ and financial rewards, and absolute loyalty or risk his imperial wrath.
He has insisted that he would personally manage the distribution of over $2 trillion in congressionally-mandated relief funding to those desperate for assistance, and then fired the inspectors general who would act as watchdogs over where that money goes. And when you consider that the president acts entirely in his own self-interest, several harrowing possibilities begin to emerge.
The first is that the federal government may be hoarding medical supplies from urban centers and blue states to drive up the death toll and bankrupt their economies, saving supplies for red states and rural areas when severe outbreaks will inevitably peak later, particularly if they follow the premature “back to work” White House orders.
HHS announced last Friday that it would give hospitals and doctors money according to their historical share of revenue from the Medicare program for seniors and not according to their COVID-19 case load. The net effect is that, of the allocated $30 billion relief funds, states that have so far experienced relatively light infection rates, such as Nebraska and Montana, will receive as much as $300,000 per patient while the hardest-hit states, like New York and New Jersey, will receive as little as $12,000 per patient, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis.
Another concern is in Trump’s self-interest and “magical thinking”. He began grasping at ‘quick fix’ straws, that the virus would “miraculously” go away in warmer weather, then turned to a snake-oil sales pitch for the drug hydroxychloroquine, pointing to a French study as evidence that one particular drug combination might be “one of the biggest game-changers in the history of medicine.”
And when the medical society that published the French research issued a statement saying that they were reviewing the study and “a correction to the scientific record may be considered”, he ignored it, even suggested it was part of a “Deep State” plot against his presidency. Dr. Kevin Tracey, president and CEO of the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in New York City, gave a more pointed assessment of the French research. He said, “The study was a complete failure”.
Trump continues to promote the malaria drug despite the lack of even marginally adequate testing for efficacy and safety, taking private meetings with its advocates such as Rudy Giuliani and fringe medical promoters, one of whom is a big donor and a regular at Mar-a-Lago who happens to sell the drug. Trump himself has a small stake in the company that produces it.
Finally, there is the demographics of the pandemic victims, many of the fatalities belonging disproportionately to the objects of Trump’s xenophobia and racism – immigrants, blacks, Hispanics and Asians.
He insists upon calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus”, while some of his acolytes prefer “Kung Flu”, citing its origin in the “wet markets” of Wuhan. They justify this inflammatory racist rhetoric by pointing to the 1918 “Spanish flu”, which in fact originated in Kansas pig farms and had nothing at all to do with Spain.
While Trump may personally fawn over those who have managed to achieve wealth and celebrity, whether in sports, showbiz, business or tech, the low-wage members of those same minorities are seen as little more than indentured servants considered disposable to society, particularly when the denial of financial support from the government forces them back into high-risk service jobs too soon to be safe.
By any human or moral standard, this ought to be the last gasp of unfettered “vulture capitalism” when those at the very top of the socio-economic ladder expect those at the bottom to give their lives to save their economic inequality.
When you ignore the word-salad of Donald Trump and his sycophants and judge them strictly by their actions, the picture that begins to emerge (and the worst may be yet to come), is that we’re really talking about crimes against humanity as horrific as any in history.
The pattern of behavior by Trump and his cultist acolytes has, through a series of deadly transactions, turned government into an arm of corporatist greed and social control. These people seem willing to sacrifice countless American lives, to “cull the herd”, in order to advance their narrow political and economic interests.
I suspect the mainstream media is still largely treating Trump’s failure to address the looming pandemic catastrophe, and the crucial six weeks of distraction, denial and inaction, as a “sin of omission”.
It may have begun that way, but I believe it’s turned into something far more sinister, a perfect storm of vile intentions, rapacious ambitions, and thousands of needless deaths.
Ray Cunneff is a former CBS Television executive, professional motion picture and television writer. His book, “2020: A Trump Odyssey – The Rise of America’s Fascist Dictator” has just been released on Amazon Kindle