US pandemic: Naming the guilty

Mike Phipps reviews Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiteers: Accountability for those who caused the crisis, by John Nichols, published by Verso

If you think the British government’s response to the coronavirus crisis was bad, you should take a look at the US, which continues to top the global league table of deaths from the pandemic. This book is motivated by the belief that accountability is a dish best served quickly while memories of injustice and callousness are fresh and before “the passage of time dulls the appetite for necessary action.”

On that basis, John Nichols, who covers politics for The Nation magazine, sets out to name those who bear most responsibility for the impact of Covid-19 in the US, which suffered more cases and more deaths than any other country, even those with considerably larger populations.

Top of the list is Donald Trump whose “deliberate distortions and steady rejections of the science” helped cause the death of 400,000 Americans in the last year of his presidency. But Vice President Mike Pence is also in the dock for playing down the pandemic and blaming the media for trying to “scare the American people”.

Jared Kushner, someone else who knew nothing about pandemics, nor much else, but was given key responsibilities, is also faulted. He allegedly advised Trump not to call a national emergency, because the markets would not like it.

Sounds familiar? The personnel are different, but these are the same selfish calculations as Johnson’s government made here. Additionally, instead of directing US factories to mass produce vital PPE, Kushner was responsible for giving no-bid contracts to multinational corporations to source materials from the rest of the world, which was also facing equipment shortages. The result was chaotic failure.

White House Chief of Staff Mike Meadows is cited for opposing mask mandates, because they would alienate Trump’s base. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seems to have spent much of the pandemic fighting the deployment of Cuban medics internationally and undermining global efforts to develop and equitably distribute a vaccine.

Education Secretary Betty DeVos tried to leverage the pandemic to pursue the privatisation of public education. Transport Secretary Elaine Chao ignored transport workers’ concerns that their buses were “germ tubes on wheels” and their calls to make masks mandatory on public transit.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is highlighted for blocking for seven moths coronavirus relief legislation from the House of Representatives and refusing to negotiate on any measure that did not guarantee liability protection for multinationals. Likewise Ron Paul, one of the leading Republican libertarians to attack the science and call for the resumption of economic normalcy; Republican Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson for trumpeting the merits of ‘alternative treatments’; Republican Governor of Dakota Kristi Noem, who rejected all Covid safeguarding measures, despite – and perhaps fuelling – one of the worst outbreaks in the country; and Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who banned local government officials in his state from imposing mask mandates and even social distancing.

These Trump acolytes are perhaps easy targets. But Democrat New York Governor Andrew Como also gets a chapter, for the 150,000 deaths in his state’s nursing homes and other care facilities, to which infected patients were sent on his instructions. Another Democrat, Rahm Emanuel, a senior figure in both Clinton and Obama Administrations, also comes under fire for offshoring much of the US’s manufacturing base, making the country dependent on imports of vital medical equipment.

Judicial figures like Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley also stand accused, for striking down public health orders to prevent the spread of the virus. Corporates too like Pfizer are charged with vaccine profiteering. The list goes on.

Focusing on a score of unpleasant individuals makes for a lively and accessible read and you get the feeling that Nichols was getting quite a bit off his chest as he sketched their backstories. But I was left wondering whether his analysis wouldn’t have been strengthened by a more systemic approach.

Nichols’ conclusion, that we need a new crusade against impunity, feels insufficient in the face of so gigantic a crisis, whose impact reinforced all the institutional class, sex and racial inequalities already abundant in the US. But in terms of imposing some accountability while memories are fresh, it’s a start.

Mike Phipps’ book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018. His new book Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2022) can be ordered here.

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