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Ed Yong on the “Disgraceful” U.S. Pandemic Response & How Medicare for All Could Have Saved Lives

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As the United States experiences the world’s worst outbreak of COVID-19, we speak with Ed Yong, science writer for The Atlantic, who warned of the country’s unpreparedness for a viral outbreak in 2018. Now he says “it’s truly shocking and disgraceful” how badly the pandemic has been handled in the United States, and blames a lack of federal leadership for most of the damage. “A country with the resources that we have should not be in this state,” he argues, and adds that Medicare for All could have saved lives.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. The United States is experiencing the world’s worst outbreak of COVID-19. Tuesday marked the highest number of cases reported in the country in a single day since the pandemic began, with 47,000 new infections reported. Eight states — Alaska, Arizona, California, Georgia, Idaho, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas — also reported record daily highs as the virus spreads rapidly across the South and West. The number of U.S. cases have reportedly risen by 80% in the past two weeks.

In testimony to a Senate committee Tuesday, top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci warned the U.S. could spiral out of control, unless urgent steps are taken.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: When you have an outbreak in one part of the country, even though in other parts of the country they’re doing well, they are vulnerable. I made that point very clearly last week at a press conference. We can’t just focus on those areas that are having the surge. It puts the entire country at risk. We are now having 40-plus thousand new cases a day. I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 a day, if this does not turn around.

AMY GOODMAN: A number of states are reversing reopening measures as they face astronomical rises in cases. California Governor Gavin Newsom said he’ll soon announce new rollbacks of recent reopenings, after a record increase in new cases and hospitalizations.

On Monday, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey reversed the state’s reopening and ordered the closure of bars, nightclubs, gyms, movie theaters and water parks. Governor Ducey had previously banned local officials from implementing their own COVID restrictions more stringent than the state.

And in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott ordered bars to close again last week. Houston hospitals have begun transferring COVID patients to medical centers in other parts of Texas as Houston becomes a new hot spot. Former San Antonio mayor and presidential candidate Julián Castro tweeted, quote, “Texas now has more daily coronavirus cases than Italy when it was a global epicenter of the pandemic,” he said.

And it’s not just the U.S. The virus is spreading faster around the world, too, as the global death toll passed half a million earlier this week. World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned “the worst is yet to come.”

TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: We all want this to be over. We all want to get on with our lives. But the hard reality is, this is not even close to being over. Although many countries have made some progress, globally the pandemic is actually speeding up.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Ed Yong, a science writer at The Atlantic who’s been covering the pandemic extensively. His latest pieces are ”COVID-19 Can Last for Several Months” and ”America’s Patchwork Pandemic Is Fraying Even Further.” Two years ago, he warned the country’s unpreparedness in an essay, “Is America Ready for a Global Pandemic?”

Ed, welcome to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with these just astounding numbers, months into this pandemic. The U.S. has, oh, little more than 4% of the world’s population but more than a quarter of the world’s deaths and reported coronavirus cases. How is this possible? What is the U.S. doing wrong?

ED YONG: It’s truly shocking and disgraceful. A country with the resources that we have should not be in this state. And I think, above all else, the single factor that’s leading to this is the lack of federal coordination and leadership. The fact that there is no steadying, unifying hand coming from the White House means that the country is forced to fight this pandemic as a bunch of disconnected states. And the response has therefore been weaker than the sum of its parts.

That’s why we are in this situation, where entirely predictable patterns are emerging. You know, we knew that if states reopened too early, in the South, in the West, all around the country, without putting in the measures necessary to contain and suppress the virus — testing, contact tracing and so on — that we would see new surges in cases. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing now. The tragedy that is currently unfolding in the South and in the West is doubly tragic because it was entirely predictable and that experts had warned about it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But I wanted to ask you: What about the reality that whether it’s a liberal state, like California, or some of the more conservative states, like Texas and Florida, where the leaders were skeptical and tried to reopen very quickly — California was the first to close, to have people stay at home, and yet it is seeing a huge surge now. To what degree is this a result of the direct policies of these states, or is it just the fatigue of a lot of Americans who just are not accustomed to just staying at home and maintaining social distance for such a long period of time?

ED YONG: So, you can’t separate any of these things. The reason why we went into a period of social distancing in the first place was because the U.S. wasted time in the early part of the year, when it had warnings and didn’t get ready to capture the virus as it arrived within our borders. So, the thing spreads, cases start rising, and everyone goes into panic mode and, very justifiably, locks down to reduce transmission. But that comes with an implicit deal, a bargain on the part of the people, that we will shoulder this financial and emotional and mental hit in order that the government can use the time to shore up our hospitals, to improve the public health infrastructure, to just get ready.

And to do that effectively, you can’t just say to the states, as the Trump White House has done, “Do your own thing.” You need a federal government, who have deep pockets and extensive power, to say, “We are operating on this consistent framework, so that you may do — you, the states, may do something different according to the needs of your population, but we’re going to act as one.” And that was not done.

And that means that, unfortunately, towards the end of spring, regardless of whether you’re a Democratic or Republican state, whether you’re red or blue, leaders were in this weird position where they — a lot of them had to reopen, because people were getting bored, because people were stretching the limits of their mental and financial patience.

So, because we didn’t use that time well, the time that all of us bought with this sacrifice, we are now in the situation where the virus was never brought to heel and is now raging out of control again. We talk a lot about second wave. We never even escaped the first one.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ed Yong, I’d like to also ask you about possible other waves. One of my concerns has been that, increasingly, not just in the United States, but across the world, as the world has become more urbanized, as more and more people are crowded into megacities, and as neoliberal policies have resulted in less and less investment in public health infrastructure, are we facing the potential for more pandemics in the future? We’re hearing now, for instance, reports that a new strain of H1N1 is beginning to spread in the countryside of China, of swine flu. And does your concern extend beyond the coronavirus to potential other pandemics on the horizon?

ED YONG: Yeah, absolutely. You know, in many ways, this is, by far, not the worst pandemic we could be seeing. This virus is deadly and spreads well, but it doesn’t spread as well as measles. It’s not as deadly as other coronaviruses, like SARS or MERS. This could be worse. And we are already flunking this quite basic test in a really spectacular fashion.

Now, yes, as you say, urbanization, crowded cities are an issue. But other countries that have successfully contained the virus, like Hong Kong and South Korea, other states and nations, also have big, crowded cities. You know, the fact that we are in a globalized, urbanized world shouldn’t be an excuse for America to look past its failings during this crisis.

On top of those things that a lot of other countries share, we add this — a strange healthcare system that ties health to unemployment. We add a long legacy of racial discrimination, which means that now Black and Brown and Indigenous people are suffering disproportionately. They’re getting infected and dying from coronavirus far more than other people. We add a specific disinvestment in public health, that is not universal, that is very much an American phenomenon, that we have become complacent. We have reduced the money that goes in to the people who stop us from getting sick in the first place, in favor of treating people who are already sick. And the combined burden of all of these choices, left to fester and rot for decades, is coming to fruition now. Now we’re seeing the impact of all these things, that people have talked about and could have been prevented and are making the pandemic so much worse.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think, if we had Medicare for All, a national healthcare system, that it would have dealt with the system much better, and working against this patchwork approach in this country, Ed?

ED YONG: Yes. I think it’s very clear that that is the case. You know, it’s not going to be a panacea. It’s not going to be the single thing that fixes everything. The problem with the pandemic is that the U.S. has floundered on multiple different fronts. Healthcare access is certainly one of them. There was a thing called the Global Health Security Index, which ranks different nations according to their preparedness. The U.S. ranked number one, which now, in hindsight, seems a bit dubious. But even then, in terms of healthcare access, it ranked 175th out of 195 countries — one of the worst in the world.

So, do I think that universal healthcare would have made a difference? Absolutely. As would other social policies — paid sick leave, hazard pay — things that would allow people the agency and power to take their health into their own hands, stop themselves from getting infected in a way that we know that poor and disadvantaged people currently are.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden blasted Trump’s, quote, “historic mismanagement” of the coronavirus pandemic. He was speaking in Wilmington, Delaware. He compared his response with Trump’s.

JOE BIDEN: In April, I released a plan to secure the supply chain for personal protective equipment, surge nationwide testing with a — through a pandemic testing board, and launch a nationwide health corps to focus on contact tracing. Trump’s suggestions? Americans should inject disinfectants into their bodies.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Joe Biden yesterday. Ed, in South Dakota, the president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe has ordered President Trump to cancel a planned visit to Mount Rushmore July 3rd for his Independence Day celebration. Meanwhile, the South Dakota Republican governor, a close ally of Trump, Kristi Noem, said Tuesday the thousands of people attending Trump’s Mount Rushmore event will not be required to wear a mask or to remain six feet apart. This is what she said.

GOV. KRISTI NOEM: We’ll be giving out free face masks, if they choose to wear one, but we won’t be social distancing.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about this? People say, “If we’re not going to stand six feet apart, we should be looking at six feet under.” Others are saying, “Here is President Trump, who cares more about dead Confederates than he does living Americans,” last seen golfing this weekend at his Bedminster [sic] private club. Can you talk about Trump, in particular, what Joe Biden is proposing? You have called the catastrophe at the White House — you have referred to it in all sorts of ways. What Trump has done?

ED YONG: I’m running out of ways to describe it, honestly. I think that to have a rally at this time, you know, to essentially assuage your own narcissism at the cost of the lives of Americans, and specifically your own supporters, just seems utterly baffling, certainly electorally counterproductive, but just a massive moral failure.

Like, a president should be providing clear, consistent, evidence-based messaging. He should be wearing a mask in public. He should be setting an example for the rest of the nation. Pandemics are already going to be divisive climes, where people are scrabbling for information. They’re looking at each other with suspicion. And we need leadership to unify a population that’s threatened to be fragmented.

But Trump is doing what Trump has always done. In moments of genuine crisis and panic, he is stoking a culture war, he is setting people against each other, and he is thinking about himself and his career above all else. And we’re seeing the effects of that play out across the country. The people who turn up to his rally are putting themselves at danger. And for what? This whole pandemic has shown us that having someone at the top who is ill-suited to the job and unable to carry out the duties of that office is a huge problem in a crisis like this.

If Joe Biden were to be elected, one thing I would note is that all the problems that I’ve described in this segment so far — long-standing issues of healthcare inequality, racism — if you have a candidate who is running on the platform of going back to the good old days, the good old days were what led to this. We need progressive, radical reform to get the U.S. into a situation where it can more effectively fight the pandemics of the future that we know absolutely will happen. Can we possibly do that with Trump in the White House? I don’t think we can. But it is a challenge for any person occupying that office to deal with in the future.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ed Yong, could you help us understand more about what you’ve learned about how the disease spreads? We know that there are some people who get COVID-19 and don’t infect other people. There are those who are superspreaders. And there’s also now more, increasing reports that some people suffer from this flu for months and months, and there’s a potential for brain damage in some people. Could you talk about what you’ve learned?

ED YONG: Yes. So, one of the things that makes this virus so challenging is that it can spread from one person to another before the former shows any symptoms. And this presymptomatic spread allows it to move stealthily without being easily detected. Now, it shouldn’t be a dealbreaker; testing and tracing and public health measures should be able to contain it.

One thing that I think is an understated problem, underreported problem, is this issue of people getting, quote-unquote, “mild cases,” who don’t need to go to the hospital, don’t need ventilators, but are nonetheless suffering from severe symptoms for months, people who have been bedridden, incapacitated, dealing with rolling, debilitating waves of symptoms for two, three, four, five months now.

These so-called long-haulers, who I’ve written about, are being dismissed by a lot of medical professionals. They’re being dismissed by their friends and families, because we have this idea of COVID as being a mild — mostly mild disease that goes away after two weeks. That is very much a caricature. It happens in some cases, some fortunate cases, but it is not the universal picture of the disease by any means. And we need to start understanding what is happening to folks who are staying at home, whose lives have been completely uprooted, who aren’t going to hospital, and who are suffering from COVID-19 for a long period of time. We might see waves of medium- and long-term disability as a result of this.

So, it’s not just looking at death or confirmed cases. We definitely need to understand the people who are dropping through the cracks in the system and the narratives that we’re telling about this disease.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, a vaccine, if it were to be developed, how everyone gets it, Ed?

ED YONG: Look, we all want a vaccine. That is the endgame. But if you look at how the pandemic is playing out and our response to it, you know, I can pretty safely predict that a lot of people will be confused, misinformed, will refuse to get a vaccine. I can tell you that the vaccine will be distributed inequitably, so that the people who most need it right now — people in nursing homes, people in the Black, Brown, Indigenous communities — will be the last to get it.

We need to fix a lot of these underlying issues that have affected America’s culture and healthcare system for a long period of time, so that by the time we get appropriate medical countermeasures, they can be distributed fairly, equitably and efficiently, and that they will actually work.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. Ed Yong, thanks so much for being with us, science writer at The Atlantic. We’ll link to all of your articles.

A little correction: Trump didn’t go to Bedminster in New Jersey. He went to Trump National in Potomac Falls, Virginia, as the pandemic rages.

And that ends today’s show. A huge thanks to all of our team working at home and, as well, working here in the studio to make sure Democracy Now! continues. And remember: Show that you care by wearing a mask. Protect all. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.

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