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How Trump and privatised health care left US exposed

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The US is the richest country in the world, but has one of the worst responses to coronavirus. Sarah Bates looks at how a a broken system killed over 200,000
Issue 2724
A testing site in Glenn Island Park, New York
A testing site in Glenn Island Park, New York (Pic: New York National Guard)

Donald Trump promised on 26 February that the handful of US coronavirus patients were about to get better. 

At least 205,000 deaths and 6.9 million cases later, he could not have been proven more wrong. 

The US has just 4 percent of the world’s population but around 20 percent of confirmed Covid-19 cases. Led by a right wing administration intent on playing down the ­pandemic, it missed every opportunity to halt the spread. 

Sheila Davis, CEO of the Partners in Health non-profit organisation, describes the approach as, “Get hospitals ready and wait for sick people to show.”

“Especially in the beginning, we catered our entire Covid-19 response to the 20 percent of people who required hospitalisation, rather than preventing transmission in the community,” she said. 

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The US is the richest country in the world. 

Yet people are left queuing for hours in the baking sun to take a test and health workers are scrambling to get their hands on PPE protective kit. 

“The number of people testing in Oregon is really low,” explained Sean Cummings, a socialist and Marx21 member in the state’s biggest city Portland. “To get a test you have to have a car or queue up for three hours.

“The rich will get tested but the poor won’t. You can see that in who’s dying, who it’s affecting the most—it’s working class people, it’s bus drivers, postal workers, health care workers and so on.” 

The pandemic has smashed through a privatised health system that lets millions of people die every year while pharmacy fat cats and bloated providers count their profits.

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The just-in-time delivery ­methods that led to empty supermarket shelves weren’t sufficient to keep hospital store cupboards stocked with masks and gloves either.

Poor planning on a federal level was also partly to blame. It was discovered too late that the Strategic National Stockpile, which is supposed to provide for just this type of emergency, was 100 million respirators and masks short. 

They were used in the 2009 flu pandemic and simply never replaced.

In the US, people have to pay for their healthcare, usually through an employment-based insurance programme. And with 26 million people in the US now claiming unemployment benefits, even fewer people will have access to limited coverage. 

Those who have suffered from coronavirus face eye-watering hospital bills. Michael Flor, a 70 year old Covid-19 patient who spent 62 days in hospital, was charged more than $1.1 million for his treatment. 

“I feel guilty about surviving,” he said. “There’s a sense of ‘Why me? Why did I deserve all this?’ Looking at the incredible cost of it all definitely adds to that survivor’s guilt.”

Neither Republicans nor Democrats want change 

Despite coronavirus cases rising in 21 US states and around 40,000 new cases every day, Donald Trump is refusing to accept reality.

In full electioneering mode ahead of the November’s presidential vote, he told supporters last week, “We have done a very good job.”

Trump isn’t solely responsible, but his failure to act is central to the high death rates and widespread misery. 

And it’s hardly surprising that he’s ruled over the coronavirus crisis in this way.

In 2018 Trump disbanded the national pandemic response office. 

He squandered any head start the US had and refused to build 

extra capacity into the system by developing tests and manufacturing PPE. 

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Instead, Trump banned people from entering the US from China. 

It was an act of political theatre to appeal to his right wing base, rather than a serious attempt at halting Covid-19’s spread. 

Since then he’s poured scorn on the science, joined calls for state governments to lift local lockdowns and rejected demands for a national approach to quashing the virus.  

Yet Trump has faced little opposition from the Democratic challenger Joe Biden. 

Despite occasionally blasting Trump’s “lies and incompetence” Biden has put forward little on how to tackle the crisis. 

Neither has the track record or the inclination to truly challenge the broken system. 

But that doesn’t mean that ordinary people won’t. Beth Redbird is a sociologist who has conducted studies in how people were applying social distancing measures. 

She pointed out that times of crisis lead to people questioning everything. 

“Times of big social disruption call into question things we thought were normal and standard,” she said.

“If our institutions fail us here, in what ways are they failing elsewhere? 

“And whom are they failing most?”

Double trouble as flu season looms 

Health care workers in the US are gearing up for the winter flu season that could see an additional 500,000 people hospitalised.

“We have two pandemics coming at the same time and only one vaccine—for seasonal flu—guaranteed,” said Daniel Salmon. 

He is director of the institute for vaccine safety at Johns Hopkins University. 

“We need a national campaign with clear and consistent messaging about the community benefits,” he said. 

Unless flu is treated like the oncoming emergency it is, US health care workers will shortly be battling a dual crisis. 

No PPE for health staff

PPE protective kit guidelines aren’t based on science, but on chaotic and sustained shortages.

In March, federal officials advised healthcare workers to stop using the N95 respirator face masks and use looser paper surgical ones. 

And, because they don’t have enough, some hospital managers lock up the N95 masks. 

So healthcare workers are struggling to get hold of them in emergency situations. 

As many as 58 percent of health workers who were surveyed said they didn’t have enough PPE. 

Rich hospitals are coping with the inflated cost of supplying PPE. 

But cash-strapped ones, invariably serving poor multiracial communities, are running out of masks and money.  

This is having stark impacts. 

As of early July, the coronavirus death rate for black people is more than twice that of whites.

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