William Jones: In the U.S., can a house divided overcome the pandemic?

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William Jones: In the U.S., can a house divided overcome the pandemic?

2020-11-20

As the dust starts to settle over the 2020 presidential election, the United States remains a much divided country on some very fundamental issues. While the Trump campaign is still in the process of investigating election fraud in a number of states won by Joe Biden, putting him over the top in the race, it is unlikely, even if such fraud is discovered in some instances, that it will seriously affect the results.


But when he takes the oath of office on January 20, the new president will find himself in a country that is fairly evenly divided. And no more so than over the way to deal with the overwhelming COVID-19 epidemic, which has reached greater proportions in the U.S. than in most other countries.


The new surge, which even many of Trump's own medical team had warned would come with the colder weather, was largely ignored in the president's decision-making. When the virus hit China, there were strict lockdowns and mask mandates. But the president insisted that masks could be worn, but would not be mandatory.


For a very long time he himself never wore a mask in public, and flaunted that fact, which was followed up by his supporters, who also flaunted the fact that they refused to wear masks. "Live free, or die" is the motto of the state of New Hampshire, and, to some extent, is also linked to something in the American psyche. That may change as the death toll now encompasses a quarter of a million Americans and is rising.


The mask issue also became a political football for individual states, with Republican governors following the president's lead in not calling for a mask mandate or for major shutdowns of restaurants and bars – with devastating consequences. The election results have now allowed many of these governors to change their tune and to mandate the wearing of masks in public places.


And while Trump did play a key role in revving up a vaccine program known as Operation Warp Speed, which is on the verge of developing one or two successful vaccines within a few months, there remains the Herculean task of distributing this to tens of millions of people, an effort which some observers compare to a "Manhattan Project"-style mobilization.


And the U.S. has shown that it can mobilize such an effort, as it did in the mobilization to fight the Second World War.


But as the country tries to pull itself out of COVID-19-related economic conditions that are perhaps worse than the Great Depression, the basic infrastructure of the U.S. is in worse shape, comparatively speaking, than it was in 1932.


With COVID-19 one also discovered the serious flaws in the much-vaunted high-tech medical system in the U.S. The lack of hospitals and medical personnel has been the chief drawback in dealing with COVID-19 patients, particularly in rural areas.


After World War II, the Hill-Burton legislation on the health system mandated that there be four beds for every thousand persons and five beds in rural areas. In recent years, with increased privatization and the introduction of "shareholder value" criteria for medical services, many facilities, particularly in rural areas, have been shut down.


This has led to an increase in the death toll from COVID-19. This tragic lesson will require the next president to conduct a thorough revamping of our medical system in order to more effectively deal with the next pandemic.


Even if an efficient distribution system for a COVID-19 vaccine (no small task) can quickly develop, the new administration will have to conduct a major effort in convincing the population to take the vaccine, as the view that vaccines are dangerous, or even a conspiracy to take away their "freedoms," is very widespread in the population. And if enough people flout the vaccine, the epidemic cannot be successfully contained.


If Joe Biden is inaugurated on January 20, he will have to recalibrate some of his campaign program to find a means of bringing the other side on board, whether the Senate remains under Republican control or not.


Much of his vote came from districts that had been won by Trump in 2016, encouraged by his promise to rebuild the U.S. economy. If Biden cannot realize some of that program, he too will lose those voters.


In the present conditions, any president that wants to overcome the virus and restore the health of the American economy has got to govern from the middle.


That would be the case even if Trump were declared the winner of the election. As Lincoln so wisely put it, "A house divided cannot stand." That rings as true today in the present national crisis as it did during that earlier national crisis faced by President Lincoln.



William Jones is a Washington political analyst and a non-resident fellow of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

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