This week, Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan told National Public Radio that “With respect to the personal protective equipment (PPE) and masks and ventilators and all of those things that you’re hearing about: Every single state in America has a shortage. … We’ve been pushing these things at the federal level, but there are simply not enough of them.”
His somber conclusion: “There’s nobody in America that’s prepared,” in referring to states and locales.
To understand why, we first need to dispense with the allegation, turned into an excuse, that China delayed reporting the new virus. A case could be made it delayed a few weeks, but not months, as President Donald Trump repeatedly alleges at press briefings.
The sequence of events is well established. In early December, Wuhan hospitals saw the first few dozen patients experiencing pneumonia-like symptoms that did not respond to treatment. By Dec. 31, 2019, China had identified this as a new virus and reported this to the World Health Organization. On Jan.3, China completed gene sequencing the virus and made it available to researchers and governments worldwide within days.
In reality it’s Trump’s Pollyannaish messages and hesitation that caused confusion and delays. It is also clear that the lack of preparedness is systemic and longstanding. Our health care system and private-sector manufacturing capacity proved woefully unprepared to respond to a pandemic.
This is evident in the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) nationwide and the technical and organizational capacity to conduct testing and contact tracing. South Koreans were prepared because they learned from the deadly MERS outbreak in 2015. They stocked up on testing equipment, PPE and refined protocols. Why didn’t the U.S. government and Congress take similar actions?
Even in Minnesota, where we have some of the best health care organizations, our private and public hospitals lack sufficient inventory of surgical and N-95 masks for their own staff. Hospitals should not be running on lean inventories in an age where epidemics are becoming more frequent. Across the nation, we are now paying the price for insufficient numbers of hospital beds, ICU capacity and medical staff. Health services need the capacity to expand quickly in a crisis. Underutilized rooms are a sign of being prepared, not a sign of inefficiency.
We also lack PPE to safely carry out essential public activities and services — in particular, our front line workers like grocery store employees, who interact with the public daily. A friend in Chiang Mai, Thailand, recently told me that grocery store clerks there are equipped with masks, face shields and gloves. Every shoppers’ temperature is taken before they enter a store. Since everyone needs groceries, such a regime is a means of surveilling the public for those who may be ill. Here, clerks and customers alike have zero to little protection. Sadly, we may look back and see that grocery stores, an essential business, were a key point of transmission.
The result of this systemic failure is that 100,000 Americans may die, many more will suffer long-term damage to their lungs, and millions will be left grieving the loss of loved ones. Americans should accept no excuse for this failure. China, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore succeeded in containing the virus, altogether reporting just under 3,500 deaths, almost all in China. That all we can hope for is to stay under 100,000 is a crime.
It has taken three months to mobilize U.S. resources to stem the virus; it should have taken three days. Had we been prepared for a pandemic, we might have nipped it in the bud. We now live with this shortsightedness. That means each of us must do our best to protect each other by abiding by the social distancing guidelines. When we get through this, and we will, it will be time to raise hell with our elected officials.
The pandemic also shows that Obamacare is inadequate. Millions of laid-off workers lost their insurance. Millions had none beforehand. Still, the GOP and most top Democrats oppose Medicare for All. They are beholden to insurers, drug companies and private health care firms that exploit Americans’ health problems for profit.
If there was ever a clearer case for Medicare for All we now see it unfolding daily. To put it bluntly, the private for-profit insurance and provider model is killing Americans. Delivering health care, not making profits, should guide us going forward. We are all in it together is the lesson of this pandemic. National health insurance would have allowed us to seamlessly respond to this crisis.
Americans must demand that Congress act. We owe it to all those who have died and will die.
Wayne Nealis is a writer and longtime peace and labor activist living in Minneapolis.
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