Nothing confirms the human need for strong, honest, and competent government like a looming pandemic. The possibility that thousands, or even millions, could die from a randomly transmitted virus reminds us of our species' vulnerability — and why society cannot exist without institutions that can protect us from such staggering existential threats.
Only government can impose quarantines and precautions when necessary. Only government can trace contacts, control transportation and monitor communities. Only government can ensure that drugs, medical devices and care will be adequately distributed — and that sufficient resources will be directed toward production of a vaccine as soon as possible, without regard to profit.
At a moment like this, it suddenly becomes clear that every problem — indeed, the most pressing problems — cannot and will not be solved by "the private sector." If that seems blazingly obvious, please inform the Republicans who constantly tell us they want to "shrink government down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." Facing a potential catastrophe, those old jeers from the right sound utterly mindless.
But that is precisely the outlook that has undermined our social defenses against a global pandemic, despite many warnings over the years from experts and academics that it was coming. President Donald Trump personifies the impulse to ignore the peril while insisting on prejudice, rather than science. It is exactly the same posture that he and his enablers take toward climate change. When he put on a stunning display of ignorance at a press conference meant to reassure us about the coronavirus, it was because he is capable of nothing more.
Trump alone isn't responsible for the attitudes that undermine our response to the pandemic danger, of course. What passes for conservatism now is more akin to nihilism, promoting attacks on government and spending no matter what essential purpose they may serve. (Only the military, that mammoth of unconscionable waste, is exempt from right-wing dogma.) In the service of tax cuts for the ultra-rich, no vital program can be assured of adequate funding.
So the Trump budget actually aims to reduce funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — an idiotic proposal released just before the arrival of the coronavirus. The timing was perfect. And in fact, Trump and his minions have repeatedly vandalized the nation's bulwarks against pandemic disease.
Exactly two years ago, the money budgeted by former President Barack Obama's administration to deal with the Ebola outbreak in 2014 began to run out, and the Trump White House allowed that to occur, even though it meant reducing efforts to prevent a pandemic in most of the countries where we should be keeping watch.
The aim of that program was to stop any disease outbreak at the source, rather than allow it to leap oceans into the U.S. homeland. Among the 39 hotspot countries that saw this program eliminated were Congo, Pakistan, Rwanda — and China. Remember that the next time you hear a Republican politician barking about "wasteful" foreign aid. The simple truth is that a minimal investment in global health could have provided substantial insurance against the kind of menace we now confront.
The politicians who hate government also tend to be remarkably incapable of executing the most important government functions. Obviously, this is true of Trump and his gang, who have left an extraordinary number of posts vacant simply because they don't understand why it is necessary to fill them. In other instances, their empty-headed disregard for the purposes of government has led to the abolition of indispensable agencies and offices — notably, the National Security Council global health security division.
For the past three years, Trump and the Republicans have busied themselves with attacks on our government's intelligence capabilities, our health systems, even the health coverage that would enable Americans to cope with an epidemic like coronavirus might become. They railed against "the deep state"; they sabotaged fundamental services; they behaved as if society needs no sentinels or guard posts; and now they pretend to be able to protect us.
If America escapes tragedy this time, it must be taken as a warning: Never entrust the future to these numbskulls again.
To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.