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Economist Jeffrey Sachs: Trump “Understands Nothing, Listens to Nothing” as Pandemic Surges in U.S.

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As #NotDying4WallStreet trends on Twitter, President Trump defies his top scientists and soaring infection rate, saying he will ease restrictions soon to jumpstart the economy. We speak with economist Jeffrey Sachs about the stimulus package that failed to pass again Monday, as Democrats called the measure a slush fund for corporations. Sachs also led the WHO’s Commission on Macroeconomics and Health from 2000 to 2001 and played a key role in conceiving and establishing the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which helped distribute new medicines to fight infectious diseases.

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StoryDec 21, 2020Bernie Sanders: COVID Relief Package Is “Totally Inadequate” for “Unprecedented” Economic Crisis
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: After four days of negotiations on Monday, Senate Democrats stopped Republicans from advancing a nearly $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package that critics say is a massive bailout for corporate America, that does little to aid hard-hit workers amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich tweeted in response that, quote, “Senate Dems were right to reject this corporate bailout,” and noted it, quote, “Creates a $500B slush fund for corporations that [Treasury Secretary Steven] Mnuchin has complete control over,” and “Provides only a one-time $1200 check and just $600 for those who need it most.” This is Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy speaking on the Senate floor ahead of the vote on the stimulus package.

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY: It may make a lot of people rich, but it doesn’t have the resources in it today to take care of the most vulnerable in this country, and it’s not going to do their primary job at hand, which is to stop the virus.

AMY GOODMAN: When asked who would provide oversight for the corporate bailouts at Monday night’s press briefing, President Trump responded, “I’ll be the oversight.” This comes as the hashtag #NotDying4WallStreet is trending on Twitter. As recorded COVID-19 fatalities in the United States exceeded 100 for the first time Monday, Trump said America will be “open for business very soon.” He suggested the U.S. could dramatically change its approach to handling the pandemic.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself. We’re not going to let the cure be worse than the problem. At the end of the 15-day period, we’ll make a decision as to which way we want to go, where we want to go, the timing. And essentially, we’re referring to the timing of the opening, essentially the opening of our country.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, calls are mounting to allow remote voting for lawmakers in Washington so they can avoid gathering and potentially spreading the coronavirus. You know, Senator Rand Paul, for example, has already tested positive for COVID-19 and was seen, just a few hours before the announcement came, swimming in the Senate pool. House Democrats Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar have unveiled a bill to cancel $30,000 for all student debts during the coronavirus crisis. The Labor Department is expected to report a record-breaking 3 million Americans filing first-time claims for unemployment next week. The U.S. unemployment rate could hit 30% in the coming weeks and months.

For more, we’re joined by Jeffrey Sachs, leading economist, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. Interestingly, he also led the World Health Organization’s Commission on Macroeconomics and Health from 2000 to 2001, playing a key role in conceiving and establishing the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which helped distribute new medicines to fight infectious diseases. He’s the author of a number of books, including A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism. His forthcoming book, The Ages of Globalization, joining us by Democracy Now! stream. And, of course, Juan González co-hosting from his home in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Jeffrey Sachs, thanks so much for joining us.

JEFFREY SACHS: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: You work in New York, the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States. Talk about what’s happening in Washington and then around the world, and President Trump switching once again yesterday, reversing course, his top scientific adviser not standing at his side noticeably, Dr. Fauci, saying the U.S. is going to be open for business soon, as the pandemic rates soar in this country.

JEFFREY SACHS: Amy, thank you for your comprehensive coverage. Thanks, Juan. It’s terrifying, this pandemic, which is spreading all over the world, as you’ve so comprehensively reported. And it’s doubly terrifying that we have a complete nitwit as president, who understands nothing, listens to nothing, judges nothing, except by the stock market, and is endangering the American people. So, it’s just hard to believe what a colossal mess our country is in, not only a virus to which the world population is immunologically naive — in other words, one that can spread wild and rapidly everywhere because there isn’t acquired immunity, there isn’t experience with this virus — but a president who is certainly the most incompetent president in the history of our country, who not only has personal incompetence but is completely unable to bring together and listen to qualified people, like Dr. Fauci and others, who should be helping to control this pandemic. Instead, we have one ignoramus after another, without guidance, without strategy, so every mayor and governor in this country is on the frontlines without federal support. And Congress, it’s just bewildering. There should have been money available immediately to the states and cities for every emergency step to actually fight the pandemic. Instead, they’re talking about the airline industry. They’re talking about which bailouts of which sectors, instead of fighting the spread of the virus.

You noted at the top of the show a remarkable fact, which is probably the most pertinent fact for all of us to focus on. In China, at the very epicenter of this crisis at the start, Hubei province, China battled this virus under control and is now lifting the lockdown measures after about two months. That is the result of rigorous containment policies, tough but also comprehensive testing, contact tracing, isolation of people with symptoms, and they’ve tracked hundreds and hundreds of thousands of cases. They have been able to stop the spread of the pandemic. And China is not alone in that. It is a kind of East Asian model. Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, to a large extent, have all used public health means to bring the spread of the virus under control.

This is what our focus should be in the United States right now — stop the spread of the virus, protect the frontline health workers, contain the pandemic, help people who are in a desperate situation to get by. There’s not a lot of consumption to do right now other than our food and our basic provisioning. And, of course, nobody being evicted or losing shelter or otherwise losing the means for their survival right now. We’re not out partying. We don’t need large money for entertainment. We don’t need large money for travel, to say the least. We need survival mode.

But what the East Asian experience shows is that if you are aggressive in the public health response, the lockdown isn’t for months and years; the lockdown is 60 or 90 days, depending on how well things are done. And then it’s possible to start going back to some kind of normalcy, with care, but then with a greatly expanded public health effort in place, which the U.S. didn’t have at the start of this epidemic, which Trump, in his idiocy, disdained. The man knows nothing. We should understand this. We need expertise right now. We lost the vital weeks. Now we need to build that capacity, so that after 60 or 90 days, we can start to lift the siege. And there’s plenty of experience now of how to do this, if we would only look, learn and act.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Jeffrey Sachs, I wanted to ask you — in terms of the actions in Congress right now, you mentioned you were critical of the failure of Congress to act. But isn’t part of the problem here that rather than, as you say, deal with appropriations that would help people stay in place and not fall further and further behind financially, the Senate has tried this huge package, which obviously involves so much negotiations back and forth between the Democrats and the House and the Senate, that it makes it far more difficult than, for instance, just to pass 90 days of full-pay unemployment benefits for workers right now, while they figure out the other aspects of what to do with businesses? This attempt to create the largest spending bill ever conceived in Congress all in one fell swoop like this, is this going to just bog things down further?

JEFFREY SACHS: Juan, you’re completely right. The focus should be seriously on stopping the spread of the disease, keeping people protected, helping the health workers, and especially helping the mayors and the governors around this country who are on the frontline. There should have been immediately an emergency $100 billion, $200 billion for the governors and the mayors to quickly be able to get financial flows so that they can hire emergency social support, they can take whatever measures are available given the supply constraints for the hospitals, for requisitioning safe space, for enabling there to be a viable and civilized shutdown so that people who are in isolation can survive this period. That’s the first order of priority. It should have been one day to recognize this. It should be supervised, if we had a functioning CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, by CDC, by NIH, by the National Academies of Science, National Academy of Medicine. We could have improvised a kind of supervision, not the dolt of a president who says, “I am the one responsible.” My god, it’s shocking, with all the expertise in this country. But Congress went off on some kind of a mind-boggling economic excursion of $2 trillion rather than focusing on the epidemic. They just don’t understand what’s actually happening.

They should be listening to the mayors and the governors, because those are the political leaders truly dealing on the frontlines. And they should be helping those on the frontlines to keep the health workers alive, to get the social support and to help people to stay home, to shelter in place, and to break the transmission and to stay safe personally. Those are the points of the shelter in place — stay safe individually and end this transmission — because this transmission, if everybody that now has symptoms and is infected could be kept sheltered in place in some kind of isolation, given, of course, hospitalization as needed, the epidemic then goes away. Most people recover normally. Some are hospitalized. Tragically, some will die. But the epidemic does not spread then. This should be the order of business for the U.S. And if it is a bit abstract, all one has to look to, the countries that are actually succeeding in doing this, to get some lessons, because there are several, as I’ve mentioned.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to ask you a broader question, a more systemic question, about the U.S. response compared to other countries. We’re in a time when capitalism really has devolved into this question of constant — the bean counters constantly modeling economic projections for the future in terms of profit and loss, in terms of just-in-time production, so that there are never any goods piled up in warehouses. And what they never model are precisely these periods of complete qualitative change in society, when something completely unexpected happens. And the system is not prepared to deal with it, so now you have all of these companies going to the White House demanding help, because they never planned for possible crises of this type in their modelings and in their plans for the future. I’m wondering if this — similarly, the health system is more concentrated on curing disease rather than preventing or public health portions of the health system. So I’m wondering if there aren’t systemic issues that this crisis has now unbared.

JEFFREY SACHS: Juan, absolutely right. Our health system is focused not even first and foremost on curing disease; it’s focused first and foremost on making money. We have drugs that could stop many other epidemics now, like hepatitis C, that don’t do so, because they are priced hundreds of times more than their production costs because of the unbelievably broken system we have to give monopoly power to powerful companies, who then use their unbelievable profits, in part, to buy the Congress. So, the corruption of our political system has driven so much attention to the wrong things, away from our well-being and now even away from our survival.

And it is amazing to listen — maybe it’s not — it shouldn’t be amazing to me, but it is amazing to listen to conservative commentators say, “Yeah, we should go back to work quickly.” The president, of course, said this inanity yesterday, but others in the conservative movement saying, “We need to save the economy. Of course some people will die, but why are we wasting so much money on lives?”

This is a corruption of the most basic human spirit. It’s a kind of sickness that has infiltrated our public life, of now literally money before lives, money before survival. And it leads to a kind of blindness, because it’s not only cruelty that we’re seeing. We’re seeing profound ignorance. Of course, the president is the ignoramus-in-chief. He knows nothing, understands nothing. He’s a vulgar narcissist. But we have so many people in this country that know something, but where are they when Congress is spending $2 trillion? Where are the experts being listen to? Our system is broken because the greed has supplanted the basic values, and the greed has supplanted people who know what to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeffrey, this is—

JEFFREY SACHS: We’re not — yes, sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who rejects the idea of social distancing, urging a swift return to work, saying older people, who are much more vulnerable to the virus, should “sacrifice” for the country’s economy. Patrick spoke Monday on Fox News with Tucker Carlson.

LT. GOV. DAN PATRICK: No one reached out to me and said, “As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?” And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in. And that doesn’t make me noble or brave or anything like that. I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country like me.

AMY GOODMAN: Death panels right now that the Republicans are suggesting? As goes Texas, so goes the nation. This is on Fox. Of course, we know what Trump watches and gets his advice from. You look at the panel yesterday at the news conference. As others are calling for only scientists to speak and doctors to speak to the country, Trump is increasingly just surrounded by — yesterday it was William Barr, it was Vice President Pence. Dr. Fauci wasn’t there. And Trump, like Texas, has said he’s questioning all of this scientific advice. If the doctors had it their way, he said, we’d be closed for years. Can you respond to what the lieutenant [governor] of Texas has just suggested?

JEFFREY SACHS: I am speechless. The ignorance and the cruelty displayed by that is beyond almost anything that I can recall in American life by elected officials. Of course, we have a lot of sickness in this country of venomous type, but the expressions of this sort, that it’s time for the older people to sacrifice for the economy, is not only despicable, it’s so stupid. It’s so ignorant. It is so completely bereft of the most basic ideas of public health.

If people would understand, this is a controllable epidemic. Many countries are controlling it. The United States is not. The United States is not, because it is not implementing, because of our broken system, because of our incredibly incompetent and psychopathic president — we’re not implementing basic public health measures. But countries that are, are not sacrificing their old for the economy. They’re controlling the epidemic. And so, we need some education in this country quickly. We need to hear Dr. Fauci. We need to hear other experts. It’s not hard to find them. Our country is filled with knowledgeable people.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jeffrey Sachs, we want to thank you for joining us. We’re going to be calling on you again.


AMY GOODMAN: This is going to go on for a long time. Leading economist, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, led the World Health Organization’s Commission on Macroeconomics and Health years ago.

When we come back, we look at Cuba. It is sending doctors out around the world to help fight the pandemic. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Neil Diamond singing “Hands… Washing Hands,” in his 2020 update of his classic “Sweet Caroline,” singing from his home, where everyone needs to be.

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“Humanitarian Solidarity”: Even Under U.S. Sanctions, Cuba Sends Doctor Brigade to Italy and More

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