From the beginning, it was clear that Donald Trump was handling the COVID-19 pandemic poorly … where “poorly” can be read as any synonym for “in the worst way possible.” Trump disbanded agencies meant to deal with pandemics, ignored the outbreak long after it was a clear threat to the nation, failed to make tests available, failed to provide nation standards for social distancing, failed to create a national system of testing and case management, promoted phony cures, discouraged the use of masks, undercut health officials, and even encouraged his supporters to engage in armed insurrection against governors who were trying to take effective action. And that’s just a select list of ways Trump screwed this thing up, down, and sideways.
That Trump failed massively was obvious. But while it was nice to fantasize about how much better things might have gone under a President Hillary Clinton, it’s not really been possible to put a number to just how much of the disaster in the U.S. comes down to Trump’s mishandling.
As Reuters reports, a conference at the Brookings Institute this past week included the introduction of a series of research papers on the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. The conclusion of those researchers: “The United States … could have avoided nearly 400,000 deaths with a more effective health strategy ...” And it could have done so while spending billions of dollars less.
The researchers aren’t actually claiming that Trump is responsible for over 4 out of every 5 deaths, because they’re projecting that 400,000 lives saved against an expected total for the pandemic—which they believe will end up being around 670,000 lives lost. Had Trump taken prompt action, they believe the total would have been under 300,000.
What would have made this difference? All the things Trump failed to do: mandating mask use, enforcing social distancing, and a program of uniform testing. As one of the researchers pointed out, the way the the rules were put in place—with each state adopting its own regulations, and a tendency to drop those regulation at the first sign of improvement—was a system that was almost purpose-built to drive the caseload ever higher, while making the public more and more frustrated with both state and federal action.
The other major finding of the research is that by not addressing the pandemic quickly and consistently, the end cost is enormously higher in dollars, as well as lives. The American Rescue Plan, recently passed through Congress without Republican help, is just the latest of three massive attempts to stabilize an economy rocked by the pandemic and its secondary effects. The total tab on those attempts is now in excess of $5 trillion.
Had the scope of the pandemic been reduced at the outset, its price tag in terms of the national debt would have been much lower, and bills like the American Rescue Plan may not have been necessary. If there had been an adequate medical response to the pandemic—say, a national program of testing and case management—that might have been paired with a financial program that paid people who were forced to be away from work in isolation or quarantine. The impact on both individuals and companies might have been reduced, at huge savings.
Researchers reported that the big spending bills that were produced did what they intended. They shored up incomes, propped up spending, and helped to both buffer the nation against lost jobs and shuttered businesses. But some programs, such as the Payroll Protection Plan, got decidedly mixed reviews. Which isn’t hard to understand, considering the number of issues that have surfaced since the secrecy began to fall away from who got PPP payments. (Note: Daily Kos obtained a loan through the Payroll Protection Plan Act.)
The other big finding on the economic front wasn’t just that the cost of the reacting to the pandemic was much higher than the cost of getting out in front of COVID-19. The cost of every dollar spent on stimulus was less effective than had that same dollar gone to a project such as improving infrastructure or addressing climate change. The dollars that pass into those programs are expected to generate both more jobs, more spending, and more long term benefits that the checks mailed out as stimulus.
Which makes it nice that President Biden has made it clear—infrastructure is up next. And it’s getting more than a week.