COVID-19 places USA's moral and economic shortcomings in high relief

Trump's mishandling of the pandemic is arguably criminal

While COVID-19 has taken centre-stage here in Ireland - including shaping debate about Government formation - and there has been a sense of collective effort by all aspects of our polity, other countries, like the USA, have a rather different dynamic.

On April 7 - Insider had to confirm that this was just a week ago, time flows differently these days - Wisconsin held elections, including its primary for the Democratic nominee for November's presidential election.

While the (Democratic ) governor sought to delay voting and increase opportunities for voting by mail, due to the pandemic and the danger to public health, he was opposed in his efforts by the Republican-dominated legislature, and by courts at state and federal level (including the US Supreme Court ) which have been packed with conservative ideologies in recent years.

Rulings to suppress Democrat-leaning minorities

The state court required that in-person voting proceed, and the Supreme Court ruled against a proposal to extend the deadline for receipt of absentee (posted ) ballots.The US voting system is reliant on volunteers to staff polling stations, and areas that have been hard hit by COVID-19 had fewer volunteers. The city of Milwaukee, according to Ella Nilsen and Li Zhou in Vox, is the epicentre of the crisis in the state, with 81 per cent of deaths so far. It is also home to 70 per cent of the state's African-American residents.

The shortage of volunteers led the city to reduced numbers of polling stations, from 180 to five - this is for a city with a population of close to 600,000. The American electoral system is already broken, with too many examples of local officials manipulating polling locations, voter registration rules, and district boundaries, but there was something additionally horrific to see images of people in masks, attempting social distancing as they waited for hours to vote.

'A global pandemic is highlighting the importance of strong social safety nets, including access to affordable healthcare'

Other (whiter ) cities, which have not been as hard hit, had far more polling stations available, despite significantly smaller populations. While the courts claimed (of course ) to be faithfully interpreting the law, and the constraints on power of the governor, critics noted that the rulings, combined with intransigence by Republican politicians, fit a pattern of rulings intended to suppress turnout by Democrat-leaning groups, particularly minorities.

Alongside the primary, the state was holding a number of local elections, including for a member of the state Supreme Court. Would lower turnout in Democratic-leaning areas help the Republican-endorsed incumbent? It is difficult to tell - the phrase 'confounding factors' comes to mind - but the end result was that the liberal challenger triumphed, in results announced on Monday.

An election like no other

In the presidential race, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont - the democratic socialist challenger who had been trailing former vice-president Joe Biden - conceded on Wednesday, making Biden the 'presumptive' nominee to face Trump in November. Primary elections will continue (with Sanders' name on the ballots ) in the states that remain, which will determine delegates to the national convention during the summer.

The results will have some impact on the balance of power in the committees that will shape the party's platform (or manifesto ) for November, but for the most part attention should now turn to the federal race. Should now turn. This is an election like no other, with most states under some form of stay-at-home order, and no real likelihood that we will see large rallies, or significant in-person campaigning, this side of the election.

Joe Biden

The confounding factors are stumping pundits, as the uncertainties they add make existing models worthless. Which groups of voters are more or less likely to vote this year? Will there be a patriotic impulse to 'stand behind' the incumbent? Or will anger at Trump's (arguably criminal ) mishandling of the pandemic produce a surge that delivers Biden into office? How, too, will a wholly mediated campaign work?

Here, Insider's instinct is that Trump will have the upper hand. While Trump is happiest when playing to an adoring crowd, he has shown himself to have an instinctive sense for social media, and his campaign message thrives on a sense of grievance and being patronised by insiders and experts.

'It seems that every election is described as 'the most important of our generation', but that may be particularly true of the next US presidential election'

Biden is, in this sense, the anti-Trump: a long-time senator, and then a vice-president, picked by Obama precisely to bolster the 'insider' credentials of his ticket. Biden will also have difficulties challenging Trump on some of his areas of significant personal shortcomings. In areas where serious allegations have been made against Trump - such as sexual assault and nepotism - Trump's side have not been shy in playing up claims of Biden's own failures.

Trump's impeachment centred on attempts to characterise Hunter Biden's corporate work in Ukraine as corrupt, trading on his family name and influence with his father. While that was not immediately successful, the subsequent lack of a conviction in Trump's impeachment trial is (inaccurately ) portrayed to his base as a vindication of those allegations.

It seems that every election is described as 'the most important of our generation', but that may be particularly true of the next US presidential election. We have, maybe, 10 years to flatten the curve on global warming - and the Trump administration has chosen now (when attention is distracted by the pandemic ) to reverse efficiency standards for vehicles, described by some as the only significant US policy intervention to slow climate change.

A global pandemic is highlighting the importance of strong social safety nets, including access to affordable healthcare - and Trump forced proposals for paid sick leave for those with suspected cases of COVID-19 to be watered down. He also threatened to veto any funding package that included support for the US postal service.

Our unprecedented levels of global connectivity are part of the story, not only of initial transmission of the virus internationally, but also of how it is being tackled, from Open Scholarship to distribution of PPE supplies - but Trump's administration is credibly accused of attempting to buy exclusive access to possible COVID-19 treatments, and is fuelling conspiracy theories and jingoism.

Could a new economic system emerge?

It is increasingly clear that the outcome of the current crisis will be a new definition of 'normal'. While some changes will be sobering - the psychological impacts of social distancing will be long-lasting, and some businesses will never recover. The need to refashion our social and economic system provides potential for positive changes.

Here in Ireland, it is to be hoped that widespread recognition of the importance of 'essential workers' - from grocery workers to healthcare professionals, warehouse staff to cleaners - might translate into support for worker rights like mandatory union recognition, an end to precarity, and moves towards a living wage.

Our two-tier health system was always inequitable, though Fine Gael seems to have bungled the temporary takeover of the private system through a failed leasing model (with the cost not being revealed even after the deal was signed ), unlike Spain, where PES member parties have simply nationalised private systems.

PPE Healthcare Workers

In the US, tens of millions already lack health insurance, and the cost of hospitalisation for COVID-19 is in the tens of thousands of dollars. With health insurance, for most, tied to employment, the millions losing their jobs at present will lose their insurance at the end of the month. The recent bailout bill provides Trump with a slush-fund of hundreds of billions to distribute as he pleases to industries and corporations, rather than the wage subsidy models favoured in Europe.

COVID-19 places the shortcomings - moral, economic, and social - of the United States in high relief. There is potential to emerge from this crisis with a fairer system, but it will depend not only on Biden triumphing over Trump in November, but on concerted (and successful ) pressure by activists and others in civil society, to push the next administration to take decisive action. I cannot claim to be optimistic, but I must hope.

 

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