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“Viral” elections: Will coronavirus impact the outcome of US presidential race?

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With the coronavirus COVID-19 spreading rapidly worldwide and the first deaths reported in the United States, the issue of its impact on US stock markets is going viral and more and more people now realize that the new disease could have a serious impact on the outcome of the November presidential elections as well.

Any global pandemic poses three main threats to any country, namely medical, economic and, as a result, political, and the US is certainly not an exception. Is America’s healthcare system ready for such a potential pandemic?

In a WHO analysis of national health care systems, the United States ranks 37th out of 191 countries. Back in mid-February, optimists were confident that the US was better prepared for a possible epidemic than most countries in the world. The high death toll from a spate of natural disasters, starting with Hurricane Katrina, has forced the government to respond with a series of measures to get the national health system ready for “worst-case scenarios,” including the annual allocation of $1 billion to states and individual hospitals as part of emergency response measures.

Still, according to a Politico.com report that came on February 26, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), responsible, among other things, for combating infectious diseases, was not yet ready to detect whether the coronavirus was spreading across the country because of problems with a test developed by the CDC, potentially slowing the response if the virus starts taking hold, probably because the test lab itself could have been infected. Meanwhile, it wasn’t until very late in February that the White House finally began to realize the magnitude of the problem, if not medical, then, certainly, political.

President Donald Trump’s decision to appoint Vice President Mike Pence to lead a task force to combat the spread of the coronavirus rattled many domestic commentators who were quick torecall Pence’s failures in fighting the HIV outbreak in Indiana during his stint as governor there. In addition, during a February 28 meeting with voters, President Trump dismissed reports about the extent of the spread of coronavirus in the United States as a “hoax” being spread around by the Democrats, comparing it to allegations of his alleged ties to Russia and the impeachment process. It wasn’t until March 2 that Trump finally announced travel restrictions to countries affected by the coronavirus, and announced new screening procedures for people traveling from “high-risk countries.” The list of countries to which flights are canceled is also growing.

On March 2, The Washington Post warned that within the next few weeks the virus could spread across Washington State, which has already become one of the hotspots of undetected spread of the COVID-19 infection. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar II is being blamed for the agency’s slow response to the infection. Moreover, accusations of “incompetence,” “blatant slowness” and unwillingness to listen to critically acclaimed medical experts are now coming from members of the Trump camp itself, who actually stood behind Mr. Azar’s appointment to the head of the HHS. All this is adding to the general atmosphere of bureaucratic confusion. As of early-March 2020, the CDC had only one laboratory capable of providing a set of COVID-19 identification tests, and the provision of commercial test kits is being delayed due to sharp disagreements between officials and private pharmaceutical companies.

On March 3, experts said that the US authorities had “lost six weeks” of preparation time since the discovery of the first patient. This made it impossible to put the whole situation under control early on and, as a result, the risk of a mass spread of the disease among Americans increased exponentially. On March 1, Chris Meekins, a former HHS emergency-preparedness official, said the risk of significant US outbreaks had risen from 33 percent to 75 percent in the previous week alone.  Federal health officials have also changed their rhetoric from “containment” of the virus, to measures designed to prevent the worst consequences for the United States. Meanwhile, by March 4, less than ten US states had launched mass-scale COVID-19 test programs, and a mere 12 out of 100 HHS laboratories had  necessary equipment in place to confirm a COVID-19 diagnosis.

Meanwhile, lobbyists representing the interests of the US pharmaceutical industry are locking horns in Congress for billions of dollars that the federal government plans to unload to stave off a possible epidemic. The sticking point here is who and how will pay for patients who do not require immediate hospitalization, but are to be quarantined. As a result, a bill on the allocation of $8.3 billion for priority epidemic-prevention measures took almost until mid-March to be finally approved.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that much of the drugs imported by the US come from China. According to the Breitbart portal, we are talking about 97 percent of all antibiotics and 80 percent of the active substances and substances used in the production of medicines. Many basic medicines, as well as protective equipment for the medical personnel also come from abroad. Finally, US pharmaceutical firms no longer produce generic drugs. The past few weeks have seen a notable drop in supply volumes due to the coronavirus epidemic in China. The quality control of drugs and their precursors is a separate issue. The US authorities have thus found themselves hostages to their own policy of encouraging cost-reduction by pharmaceutical companies through shifting production to third countries.

The economic losses the US may incur as a result of a possible COVID-19 epidemic remain hard to estimate. Until very recently, healthy economy was a major factor Donald Trump could count on in his bid for a second term in the White House. And with good reason too as the poorest categories of US workers have seen a notable rise in their incomes, and salaries in the private sector continued to grow in February of this year.

Meanwhile, by the close of 2019, many signs were already visible warning about a possible economic decline in the second half of 2020. Even the initial reports about an incidence of COVID-19 infections in the US sent stock indices tumbling down. On February 24, the Dow Jones Industrial Average slid by over 1,000 points and the S&P 500 index tumbled eight percent on February 26. The White House ramped up pressure on the Federal Reserve System to bring down the interest rates. On March 3, two weeks before the official date of the meeting of its Board of Governors, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates by half a percentage point in the first emergency rate move since the depths of the 2008 financial crisis. Bloomberg suggested that the coronavirus could “play into Trump’s hands” on the assumption that the rate cut would bring in new investments and spur the US economy. The next day, however, Wall Street stocks plummeted again.

From a macroeconomic standpoint, the US external debt has kept going up throughout Trump’s presidency, along with the budget deficit. Thus, even before coronavirus, even a GDP growth of almost 2.1 percent could not be enough to reverse the negative trend. And now, the outbreak of the epidemic could be the “spark” that would send America’s “fragile economic balance” up in flames. The US could probably draw some consolation from projections similar to those World Bank experts made in 2006. According to those estimates, based on the 2003 SARS pandemic, in the event of a new global outbreak of the deadly flu, the first-year drop in the US GDP would be the least insignificant around, ranging from just one to three percent. With all that being said, just where things could go from now remains anyone’s guess.

One thing is clear: the effects of the COVID-19 epidemic on the US economy will be long-term and it will take us a few months to get a whole picture of the scale of government measures being taken to offset the negative consequences of the coronavirus. Just in time for the decisive phase of the election race. A number of studies conducted in recent decades by the US academic community show that the state of the national economy, above all its year-to-year dynamics, significantly affects the political preferences of US voters. Even a moderate recession, let alone a full-blown one, that is enough to slow down the economy three to six months before the Election Day.

Not surprisingly, right after the first cases of COVID-19 in the US became evident the issue became a centerpiece of the election campaign. With a deep split running through the US political establishment and society as a whole, playing up the issue of the coronavirus infection could prove an easy way to win votes in the election race. US media is already talking about some anonymous sources spreading information about the coronavirus in social networks to freak out elderly voters to make sure they stay away from the Democratic Party primaries and to reduce the overall voter turnout in the November presidential elections.

Donald Trump’s critics may interpret the urgent rate cut by the Federal Reserve, led by a Trump appointee, as an attempt to increase the president’s chances for reelection. On the other hand, if the dollar sinks too low as a result of the Fed’s actions, it would eat into the US families’ income in the run-up to the November vote. Finally, lower interest rates can reflect badly on the labor market. A sharp slowdown in the employment rate a few months before Election Day 2016 left some voters wondering about a worsening situation in the labor market. As a result, many people did not vote for the candidate of the Democratic Party, whose representative was then in the White House.

Overall, the COVID-19 outbreak offers politicians potential gains while at the same time presenting them with serious risks. On the one hand, it gives one a perfect chance to present oneself as “a protector of the health of citizens.” On the other, panic among the population can negatively impact the approval ratings of the current administration, of state governors, and even of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, all the more so if the measures being taken are seen by people as ineffective.

Washington’s inability to check the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic may sap the Americans’ confidence in the federal government. As a result, the infection could turn from an important factor in the election campaign into a national security problem. The Trump administration’s current anti-coronavirus policy may factor in very significantly in Donald Trump’s chances for re-election. Indeed, if the situation with the coronavirus epidemic gets worse, COVID-19 might determine the outcome of the November vote.

From our partner International Affairs

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Americas

Democracy Or What? – And Then Climate

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Most of us were appalled to see what happened in Washington a ten days ago when a ‘mob’, incited by Donald Trump’s address, stormed the Capitol building to prevent the presentation of Joe Biden as the next President. He gave voice to a possible fraudulent (in his mind) election, by putting suspicion on the postal ballot long before the election took place, and tried to ‘engineer’ the ballot by putting his ‘own’ man in control of it. He tried to manipulate the Supreme Court by replacing vacancies with people he expected to follow his lead and must have been disappointed, if not shocked, to find that the court unanimously rejected his claim that the votes had been rigged and should be thrown out. His unruly term of office saw the greatest turnover of people of any previous presidential term as staff could only hack the unusual behaviour of a disordered mind for so long. And so on and on. Much will be written about the 4-year aberration that was Donald Trump. On a lighter note, his escapades in golf have given rise to a book, ‘Commander in Cheat’!

Concerned people have written and spoken about the state of democracy today. Those of us who have spent some time stateside appreciate the immensity of the country, how one is made welcome, but also the prejudices that one finds and the general unknowing of the world we live in by large swathes of the population. Some are still steeped in attitudes that pre-date the civil war. Donald Trump played to all of those and gave them voice. That is a big challenge facing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to get America back on track and if not ‘great again’ to stand up and join the rest of us and share and appreciate that there are billions of other people that are working away with hopes and dreams and looked to the US as a beacon.

That should be the meaning of ‘great again’, and if they can look up and truly be the land of the free and welcome the weak and downtrodden who are fleeing war and violence, as was once the way, then we can say that once more ‘you have earned the right to be the leader of democracy’, and democracy, for all its imperfections, is still the least bad form of government. It is well that the US re-joins the world as totalitarianism, in all its forms and at all levels, is on the rise again. Countries that espouse democracy and heed its precepts need to speak up loudly and be heard once again.

In November of this year is the World Climate Meeting, COP21, in Glasgow, Scotland at which the latest news on climate will be debated. Hopefully, the coronavirus will be on the decline and the US election will no longer be an issue. We can then get together on the one matter that should concentrate all our minds and separate the wheat from the chaff because there is some said that is wrong that muddies the waters, and leads the politicians to make incorrect decisions. But change is around us.

Climate is a highly complex issue, arguably the most complicated, that not all the modelling can get right, but study must go on. It is strange that it has only come to our notice since the population of the world over the past 60 years, has increased dramatically from approaching 3 billion to 8 billion. Mankind has thus significantly increased breeding himself, and thus his use of natural resources, for example cutting down trees, which need carbon dioxide to live, and vastly increased the pollution of the seas and the seas cover 70% of the planet. It has only been in comparatively recent times that we have started to pay attention to the seas and are alarmed at what we see.

However, we have the tools to put things right. We just need the will and ability to spend money wisely.

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Americas

A Disintegrating Trump Administration?

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If Donald J. Trump wanted a historic presidency, he certainly seems to have achieved it — he is now the only president to have been impeached twice.

According to the rules, the House impeaches followed by a trial in the Senate.  There is precedent for the trial to continue even when the office holder has left office.  Should that trial result in conviction, it prevents him from seeking any future elected office.  Conviction is unlikely, however, as it requires a vote of two-thirds of the members present.

It has been reported that Trump wanted to lead the crowd in the march to the Capitol, but was dissuaded from doing so by the Secret Service who considered it much too dangerous and could not guarantee his safety.

Various sources attest that Trump’s mind is focused on pardons including himself and his family members.  Whether it is legal for him to pardon himself appears to be an unresolved question.  But then Trump enjoys pushing the boundaries of tolerated behavior while his businesses skirt legal limits.

He appears to have been greatly upset with his longtime faithful vice-president after a conversation early on the day of the riot.  As reported by The New York Times, he wanted Mike Pence to overturn the vote instead of simply certifying it as is usual.  The certification is of course a formality after the state votes already certified by the governors have been reported.  Pence is reputed to have said he did not have the power to do so.  Since then Trump has called Vice President Pence a “pussy” and expressed great disappointment in him although there are reports now that fences have been mended.

Trump’s response to the mob attacking the Capitol has also infuriated many, including lawmakers who cowered in the House chamber fearful for their lives.  Instead of holding an immediate press conference calling on the attackers to stop, Trump responded through a recorded message eight hours later.  He called on his supporters to go home but again repeated his claims of a fraudulent election.

Aside from headlining the US as the laughingstock among democracies across the world, the fall-out includes a greater security risk for politicians.  Thus the rehearsal for Biden’s inauguration scheduled for Sunday has been postponed raising questions about the inauguration itself on January 20th.

Worse, the Trump White House appears to be disintegrating as coordination diminishes and people go their own way.  Secretary of State Pompeo has unilaterally removed the curbs on meeting Taiwanese officials put in place originally to mollify China.  If it angers China further, it only exacerbates Biden’s difficulties in restoring fractured relationships. 

Trump is causing havoc as he prepares to leave the White House.  He seems unable to face losing an election and departing with grace.  At the same time, we have to be grateful to him for one major policy shift.  He has tried to pull the country out of its wars and has not started a new one.  He has even attempted the complicated undertaking of peace in Afghanistan, given the numerous actors involved.  We can only hope Biden learned enough from the Obama-Biden administration’s disastrous surge to be able to follow the same path.

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Americas

Flames of Globalization in the Temple of Democracy

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Authors: Alex Viryasov and Hunter Cawood

On the eve of Orthodox Christmas, an angry mob stormed the “temple of democracy” on Capitol Hill. It’s hard to imagine that such a feat could be deemed possible. The American Parliament resembles an impregnable fortress, girdled by a litany of security checks and metal detectors at every conceivable point of entry. And yet, supporters of Donald Trump somehow found a way.

In the liberal media, there has been an effort to portray them as internal terrorists. President-elect Joe Biden called his fellow citizens who did not vote for him “a raging mob.” The current president, addressing his supporters, calls to avoid violence: “We love you. You are special. I can feel your pain. Go home.”

That said, what will we see when we look into the faces of these protesters? A blend of anger and outrage. But what is behind that indignation? Perhaps it’s pain and frustration. These are the people who elected Trump president in 2016. He promised to save their jobs, to stand up for them in the face of multinational corporations. He appealed to their patriotism, promised to make America great again. Arguably, Donald Trump has challenged the giant we call globalization.

Today, the United States is experiencing a crisis like no other. American society hasn’t been this deeply divided since the Vietnam War. The class struggle has only escalated. America’s heartland with its legions of blue-collar workers is now rebelling against the power of corporate and financial elites. While Wall Street bankers or Silicon Valley programmers fly from New York to London on private jets, an Alabama farmer is filling up his old red pickup truck with his last Abraham Lincoln.

The New York banker has no empathy for the poor residing in the southern states, nothing in common with the coal miners of West Virginia. He invests in the economies of China and India, while his savings sit quietly in Swiss banks. In spirit, he is closer not to his compatriots, but to fellow brokers and bankers from London and Brussels. This profiteer is no longer an American. He is a representative of the global elite.

In the 2020 elections, the globalists took revenge. And yet, more than 70 million Americans still voted for Trump. That represents half of the voting population and more votes than any other Republican has ever received. A staggering majority of them believe that they have been deceived and that Democrats have allegedly rigged this election.

Democrats, meanwhile, are launching another impeachment procedure against the 45th president based on a belief that it has been Donald Trump himself who has provoked this spiral of violence. Indeed, there is merit to this. The protesters proceeded from the White House to storm Congress, after Trump urged them on with his words, “We will never give up, we will never concede.”

As a result, blood was shed in the temple of American democracy. The last time the Capital was captured happened in 1814 when British troops breached it. However, this latest episode, unlike the last, cannot be called a foreign invasion. This time Washington was stormed by protestors waving American flags.

Nonetheless, it is not an exaggeration to say that the poor and downtrodden laborers of America’s Rust Belt currently feel like foreigners in their own country. The United States is not unique in this sense. The poor and downtrodden represent a significant part of the electorate in nearly every country that has been affected by globalization. As a result, a wave of populism is sweeping democratic countries. Politicians around the world are appealing to a sense of national identity. Is it possible to understand the frustrated feelings of people who have failed to integrate into the new global economic order? Absolutely. It’s not too dissimilar from the grief felt by a seamstress who was left without work upon the invention of the sewing machine.

Is it worth trying to resist globalization as did the Luddites of the 19th century, who fought tooth and nail to reverse the inevitability of the industrial revolution? The jury is still out.

The world is becoming more complex and stratified. Economic and political interdependence between countries is growing each and every day. In this sense, globalization is progress and progress is but an irreversible process.

Yet, like the inhumane capitalism of the 19th century so vividly described in Dickens’ novels, globalization carries many hidden threats. We must recognize and address these threats. The emphasis should be on the person, his dignity, needs, and requirements. Global elites in the pursuit of power and superprofits will continue to drive forward the process of globalization. Our task is not to stop or slow them down, but to correct global megatrends so that the flywheel of time does not grind ordinary people to the ground or simply throw nation-states to the sidelines of history.

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