With the mayor of America’s largest city desperately warning the new coronavirus pandemic is on the verge of overwhelming the local hospital system, leading to deaths from untreated illness, you might expect the federal government to be focused on slowing the spread of the disease and boosting the United States’ capacity to treat it. Protecting the lives of citizens is, after all, the most basic responsibility of democratic government in the Anglo-American tradition, enshrined in multiple state constitutions that predate the republic itself.
Politicos at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are working overtime these days, but saving lives doesn’t seem to be their primary concern. Instead, the main focus of America’s national political discourse these past few weeks has been how best to contain the economic fallout of the coronavirus-related shutdowns, an approach to economic policymaking as backward and self-defeating as it is morally repugnant. Democrats may think that they have no power to force Trump to utilize the federal government to provide understocked medical supplies to hospitals in New York and other hot spots, but in fact they can use Trump’s obsession with economic performance as a weapon against him.
No sooner had Congress appropriated $8 billion—approximately 0.2 percent of the annual federal budget of $3.8 trillion—for fighting the coronavirus on March 6, than it turned its attention to what many members, and certainly the president, seemed far more concerned about: stemming the illness’s economic fallout. Last week, while negotiations over how to spend at least $1 trillion on an economic stimulus bill were ongoing, President Donald Trump signed a separate $100 billion bill that invested in some direct measures to combat the pandemic, such as making testing for it more widely available and expanding access to paid sick leave, along with some funds to ease economic hardships, such as emergency food aid and expanded unemployment insurance. But the bill also carved out enormous exceptions to paid leave, essentially incentivizing sick workers to come in and infect their colleagues and customers. And even as that bill was being voted on, the White House and Congress were already negotiating on the far bigger economic aid package.
What the bills passed so far have not addressed is the terrifying shortage of ventilators, respirator masks, surgical masks, and hospital or intensive-care beds—all of which currently have doctors panicking. Right now, as reported by The Washington Post, ventilator manufacturers say they could ramp up production but haven’t received orders from hospitals because the government hasn’t stepped in to pay for the expensive machines. Instead, treating the health care system’s limit capacity as an immutable fact of life, the federal government has left it up to states to ban their residents from going outside, in the hopes of slowing the flow of the severely ill to a manageable level. President Trump has encouraged governors to find medical supplies on their own.