Some time this Memorial Day weekend, the United States’s death toll from the pandemic will surpass 100,000. The infection total, meanwhile, is approaching 1.7 million. Both are stark figures that have attracted attention world-wide, and generated a ton of political controversy and economic turmoil domestically.
When I spoke with Simon Enoch, Saskatchewan head of Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in late March for an article on neoliberalism and COVID-19 that ultimately ran in mid-May, one topic we discussed was the “perfect storm” of factors that were likely to see the pandemic blow up in the U.S.
“Even if it’s sort of rickety, Canada at least has single-payer socialized medicine where there’s a large degree of coordination across provinces and federally,” Enoch said during our interview. “The patchwork privatized system down there is just ill-equipped to deal with something of this magnitude. The fact you’re going to have people who think they’re infected but for financial reasons can’t seek care… it’s going to be an absolute disaster.”
A patchwork healthcare system isn’t the only challenge the U.S. faces in the pandemic fight. The country, at present, is plagued by reactionary social conservative leadership desperate to cling to a bygone way of life. It also has a rapacious capitalist class that is hell-bent on squeezing every dollar it can out of the economy regardless of its impact on the environment and working people.
One favourite talking point for those who insist that we’ve over-reacted in responding to the virus is to compare it to the seasonal flu. We don’t shut society down for that, goes the argument, so why the big deal about COVID-19?
First off, at 100,000 over 2.5 months, the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 far exceeds a typical U.S. flu season which claims between 12,000 and 61,000 lives over a five-month period. Remember, too, that before COVID-19 hit in March the U.S. was in the midst of the 2019-20 flu season. Centres for Disease Control (CDC) hasn’t determined what the death toll for this season was, but based on the above stats, an average year would be 36,500.
People who succumb to the flu typically have certain health vulnerabilities related to age and underlying medical conditions. If you want to be hardhearted about it, as some right-wing commentators have been lately, you could refer to it as a “cull” in the sense of nature using one of the tools at its disposal (disease) to remove weaker members of a population. So what COVID-19 has done is cut a swath through an additional 100,000 Americans (so far).
As for what the final death toll from the pandemic will be, it’s impossible to say. The first wave is still going strong, and public health officials have cautioned that even if the virus does subside this summer, a second wave this fall is a strong possibility. Complicating the calculation is the reckless and irresponsible approach that U.S. president Donald Trump and his MAGA Republican supporters have taken in addressing the pandemic. Recent revelations include that the White House shelved guidelines created by CDC to help communities re-open safely, and that stats for infections and death in states that have followed aggressive re-opening strategies are being manipulated.
Truly, what’s playing out south of the border is historic. When we were speaking in late March, Simon Enoch said, “I think we’ll look back on this as the moment where the U.S. lost its position as the dominant superpower. The fact that you have countries turning to China first for supplies, advice and expertise, that’s something that’s never happened before in the American century. It’s always led during crises, and it certainly hasn’t lead here.”