The coronavirus has killed at least 912,000 people in the U.S. Why?
Vaccination rate for COVID in the U.S. is now about 64 percent of the population. | Damian Dovarganes/AP

WASHINGTON – As of 9 a.m. on February 10, almost two years since the “official” start of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., the modern-day plague had officially killed 912,260 people in the U.S. The actual toll is far higher. It tops the world: Second-place Brazil was 276,839 deaths behind.

Why?

As of that same date and time, the U.S. has cumulatively had 77.27 million positive cases of the coronavirus, officially known as Covid-19. Again, that leads the world. The second and third-place nations, India and Brazil, had reported 63.84 million positive cases—combined.

Again, why?

A review of both academic literature and scientific statements shows the one-word answer, in particular in the U.S. and in Brazil, is “politics.”

And from there, for many U.S. residents, it’s easy to jump to a two-word answer: “Donald Trump,” the former GOP Oval Office inhabitant, coronavirus patient, and lead pandemic denier when the plague officially hit these shores and spread. But it’s faar from being as simple as that.

First, a few extra facts:

  • The actual death toll in the U.S. is far higher, for several reasons. One is that tens of thousands of coronavirus deaths occur at home, before the patients can even get to already overcrowded hospitals. They’re often not part of federal Centers for Disease Control counts, or others. And CDC relies on state reports. Some states lag; others don’t report at all.
  • Second, the count omits patients who die from other diseases and who would normally be hospitalized for them—but aren’t. They’re turned away due to overcrowding, and because overstressed hospital staffers can’t handle the extra patient load. Thousands of those staffers have caught the virus themselves. CDC also omits people who died before the official pandemic proclamation on March 13, 2020.
  • Third, there’s a flat-out undercount. National Nurses United, the top union for the nation’s registered nurses—who themselves are the real frontline workers dealing with virus victims—discovered it early on, in their own profession.

In a year-old report, which the union is currently updating with a survey of RNs, NNU reported at least 3,200 health care workers, including RNs, had died as of last February 11. It based its figures on publicly available data: Media reports, social media monitoring and obituaries.

That’s two and a half times the 1,390 cumulative health care worker Covid-19 deaths the CDC reported that day.

The caseload gap was proportionally almost two-to-one: 791,158 cumulative cases of infected health care workers discovered by NNU, compared to 401,530 the CDC reported.

And on Feb. 10, as another example, San Diego County in California added another 119 names to its cumulative death toll, the Union-Tribune reported.  “Eighty-one of the 119 listed this week occurred in the past two weeks, with the balance stretching back as far as Jan. 2,” the paper added.

Which still leaves the “Why?” question.

Dr. Deborah Birx, a career federal scientist who was originally advising Trump’s coronavirus task force, told lawmakers last year the first 100,000 deaths were unavoidable. The rest, she said, could have been prevented had the Trump regime publicly recognized and strongly attacked the threat.

Birx had warned the Trumpites who ran the task force, nominally headed by Vice President Mike Pence, that the U.S. needed strong and nationwide preventive measures to stop “community spread” of the virus. She was sidelined for speaking the truth about the pandemic’s impact.

Instead, Trump was in denial. He later pushed quack “cures,” such as asking whether people could swallow bleach to clean the virus out of their lungs, where it lodges and destroys breathing. Documents later released by Congress show task force Trumpites and officials in his executive departments were more concerned about minimizing the virus’s political impact.

Another answer to “why”: Vaccination deniers, both politicians and the public, feeding off of them.

“What we’re really seeing is the effect of the United States not making enough progress in vaccinating adults against the virus,” Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, told the PBS NewsHour in an early February discussion of the current state of war. “And people who are not protected from severe illness by vaccine are, unfortunately, the ones most likely to die.

“I have spoken to lots of people who are not yet vaccinated. And they come to me with–earnestly, but armed with lies, lies they have seen online, unfortunately, lies they have heard repeated from political leaders.” It “takes a lot of time” and talking “to unpack” lies and change minds, she added.

Though Nuzzo didn’t name such political liars, National Nurses United, in statements, studies and releases stretching over the last two years, did. It singled out Gov. Greg Abbott, R-Texas, a dedicated Trumpite. But the nurses also blame disinformation spread on social media.

It also doesn’t help when popular support surges against vaccine protections. For evidence, look no farther than Virginia. One of the first moves by new GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a right-winger who projected a “moderate” image in the 2021 campaign, was to repeal anti-virus mask mandates in schools.

School boards across the state are suing Youngkin. Some students are talking walkout. But popular pressure forced the state Senate’s Democrats—his sole legislative roadblock—to go along.

And with the Omicron coronavirus surge seeming to decline, the Democratic governors of Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Delaware are now lifting mask mandates, too. Both the CDC and the Biden administration warned last night and this morning that it is too early for mask mandates to be lifted in the schools, despite the fact that it is now being done by leading Democratic lawmakers. This can only add more confusion to an already-confused public.

The respected and influential British medical journal The Lancet went even beyond both Trump and the anti-vaxxers as major causes of the problem in the U.S., analyzing and exposing the rampant holes in the U.S. public health system that let the virus mutate—notably including the profit motive.

Another big one

But there’s another big one Lancet discussed: General U.S. socioeconomic conditions, including poor health outcomes, health care “deserts” and lack of insurance coverage, which make certain communities more vulnerable to the virus, vaccinated or not. They’re people of color, the poor, immigrants, and indigenous people, wrote Lancet’s probers. That’s worth a story in itself and Lancet devotes much of its study to the history that led up to present coronavirus calamities in those communities.

Other studies People’s World surveyed cover just the immediate response to the pandemic, and not the underlying ills of the nation’s health care non-system—ills NNU has publicized for at least a decade.

In three words, both NNU and Lancet identified another big answer to “Why?”: The profit motive.

Lancet’s devastating 49-page study, Public Policy and Health in the Trump Era, begun in 2017, was published last February 20 and is available online. It covers not just the health care system and its response to the virus, but drives very deeply into U.S. historical and sociological factors that left the nation open to the viral pandemic.

Lancet traced much of the decline back 40 years, to GOP President Ronald Reagan’s election and “decisive adoption of neoliberal policies that eroded and privatised social programmes,” cut taxes for corporations and the rich, weakened unions and environmental protection and increased the “war on drugs.” One health care result: “U.S. longevity began to lag.”

It later declined for three straight years before the coronavirus hit, wrote Lancet’s probers, all of them medical or public health professionals. It’s declined even more in the past two years, CDC reports.

Democratic President Bill Clinton “embraced key aspects of the neoliberal, pro-corporate agenda…That included welfare “reform” and food stamp cuts, plus a racist crime bill. “Many people in the U.S.A. suffered the negative effects of globalization and were left without adequate government supports,” Lancet said. The negative effects and little support included inadequate health care.

Trump made a bad situation much worse in U.S. public health, which is often understaffed, under-resourced, underpaid and ignored, Lancet reported. Federal, state and local budget cuts during the Trump era reduced the public health workforce by 20%.

“In 2020 alone he expedited the spread of Covid-19 in the U.S.A., (and) deserted the World Health Organization when the world needed it most…Trump’s appalling response to 2020’s crises culminated a presidential term suffused with health-damaging policies and pronouncements,” Lancet continued.

Even before that, historically, the U.S. health care system was creaky, discriminatory and driven by private profits, not public health. Even Democratic President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act didn’t cure its basic ill, the so-called free market, Lancet’s team explained.

“The ACA’s provider-payment strategies reinforced decades of market-oriented reforms that made profitability the fundamental measure of performance, drove the commodification of care, and increasingly vested control in investor-owned conglomerates. Commercial interests have, for decades, promoted a health-care paradigm overly reliant on…pharmaceuticals, at the expense of holistic approaches to care and attention to social determinants of health,” they stated.

Then the virus hit. Not only that, structural racism made Trump’s response even worse for communities of color.

Failed to intervene

“His dismissive approach to the pandemic as disproportionately affecting Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities is reminiscent of the U.S.A.’s failure to intervene with quarantines and vaccines to mitigate smallpox outbreaks among emancipated Black people after the Civil War,” Lancet probers reported.

Another study, published November 19 in the Sage Journal of World Affairs, linked the political performances of both Trump and fellow-right-wing authoritarian President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil to their concentration on the economy. The political party systems and federal structures of both nations, each composed of multiple states, helped the two.

“Political elites embraced divergent ideas about the appropriate relationship between the pandemic and economic management,” the Sage political scientists reported in their study. “Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore” and other nations prioritized public health, imposed quarantines and instituted strong coronavirus testing regimes, Sage’s scholars wrote.

Economic outcomes in those nations were worse, but the health impact was much better, the study said.

“In Brazil and the U.S., political leaders attempted to maintain economic productivity by downplaying the severity of the crisis, eschewing responsibility for negative public-health outcomes.” Even though the coronavirus sickened both Trump and Bolsonaro before last fall, both brushed it off, Sage reported.

“Trump’s conflict with public-health officials––while extreme––bore a striking resemblance to prior Republican attacks on science and drew on a deep reservoir of conservative distrust of scientific experts. Bolsonaro supported revisionist views, challenging the effectiveness of social distance measures and vaccines and supporting medicines with no scientific evidence for Covid-19 treatment.”

Both also used their control of political parties and the agenda to impose their views of how to deal, or not deal, with the coronavirus. At the same time, Brazilian and U.S. states had primary responsibility for combatting the modern-day plague. That let both Trump and Bolsonaro to shift the blame when things went wrong—even if state governors correctly blamed them for lack of supplies and coordination.

But the private sector bears part of the blame for the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact, both Lancet’s study and National Nurses United say. They just single out separate causes. Lancet hits the drug companies. The union goes after for-profit hospitals.

“The pharmaceutical industry has obstructed efforts to shift public funding to these essential social and public health needs or assure medication-based therapies are affordable,” Lancet’s probers reported.

“That industry has virtually unchecked power to set drug prices, and inordinate influence on drug research and regulation…The resulting products will surely be unaffordable to many who need them. Groups that are marginalized by race, gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status are rarely mentioned.”

NNU has made the same points about Big Pharma, too, over and over again, and not just about the U.S. response to the coronavirus. But it also pins the blame on profit-motivated hospitals and nursing homes. It also rakes over politicians who kowtow to the profit motive, or to crazed constituents.

Banned mask mandates

Last March, Texas Gov. Abbott, for example, banned mask mandates and ordered arenas, restaurants and other facilities where crowds could gather to re-open, without physical distancing measures, the union reported.

“We are appalled Gov. Abbott could take such an ill-advised step at a time when people are still dying, and the virus continues to spread throughout Texas, including in communities where our members live and work,” NNU co-President Jean Ross, RN, said. Popular opinion in Texas, though, backs Abbott.

“For the highest public official in the state to tell people to ignore all precautions will only result in avoidable increased pain, suffering, and deaths. It is a shockingly irresponsible decision.”

“NNU concurs with the statement by Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy,” said Ross, “that Gov. Abbott’s decision to lift a statewide mask mandate ‘would put lives of working people in jeopardy and directly lead to more deaths from Covid19.’”

NNU’s own study last March, Sins Of Omission, added more evidence of the overriding importance of the profit motive.

“It is likely that some of the hospital industry’s reluctance to acknowledge health care worker deaths, as well as infections, likely comes from their interest in putting up barriers to Covid-19-related workers’ compensation for regis­tered nurses and other health care workers in many states,” their heavily footnoted study said.

“Over the past year hospital administrators deployed a variety of tactics to blame health care workers and ‘community spread’ for their Covid-19 infections,” it added. After giving several small examples, it presented a particularly horrifying one from—where else?—Texas.

“University of Texas (UT) Southwestern of Dallas has gone to perhaps the greatest lengths to absolve itself from responsibility for its Covid-19 infected health care workers”—and of paying for their care, cutting into its revenues—through its coronavirus case dashboard.

That device “claims that of 1,116 employee cases between March 1, 2020 and Feb. 4, 2021, 1,062 employees were infected in the community and claims that in just 19 cases, a cam­pus patient infecting an employee was the identified ‘source of infection.’

“Another 35 infections were claimed to be caused by employee-to-employee exposure, as if interacting with coworkers was not a routine, necessary, and everyday part of the busi­ness of patient care,” NNU laconically commented.

“Can UT Southwestern produce a shred of evidence to back up its claims with respect to its ability to so confidently identify the ‘source of infection?’ In the absence of widespread testing and genomic sequencing it is far more likely this dashboard is simply a brazen attempt by UT Southwestern to absolve itself of any responsibil­ity in a manner that is wholly unscientific, a betrayal of the public trust, and an insult to its employees and the community it purports to serve.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.

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