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Congressional Corner With Chris Murphy

Senator Chris Murphy
Public Domain

Northeast states found themselves at the center of the COVID-19 crisis.

In today’s Congressional Corner, Connecticut U.S. Senator Chris Murphy continues his conversation with WAMC’s Alan Chartock.

This interview was recorded April 27.

Alan Chartock: We are in the Congressional Corner with United States Senator Chris Murphy, who has always been a great favorite to many of our listeners. And I hear from so many of you all the time. But let me start, Chris by asking you this. How has Connecticut handled the Coronavirus? I mean, are you satisfied with the way that Governor Lamont with the way that the structure is working? Do you think it's going as well as could be expected under these incredible circumstances?

Sentaor Chris Murphy: I think Governor Lamont has done a fantastic job. He's been dealt a really tough hand because the federal government, the Trump administration, effectively decided to stand down and leave the entire response up to the states and we can talk about the ways in which states really can't do many parts of this response, in particular sourcing the kind of equipment that is necessary in order to run a major public health response. But because we obviously are right on the border of New York, and as the city is essentially the epicenter of this crisis, there was no way to stop the spread of the virus from moving into Connecticut. But in recent days, we've seen a stabilization of infection rates, we have actually seen a drop in the net hospitalizations on a daily basis. It may be that we're plateauing, not necessarily bending the curve, but that's an achievement in and of itself. And, you know, now what we're going to need to do is, as we think about the ways that we can reopen Connecticut's economy, then we're going to have to have an aggressive system of testing, tracing, and then quarantine, and only if we set up that system funded in part by the federal government, are we going to be able to start to reopen at some point here this summer and fall.

Let me ask you something. There are 1,000 theories, that would be, about how this whole virus began. We heard about bats, we heard about a meme on open air meat market. And then we've heard, you know, people who come up with theories like this is a Chinese engineered virus that got out of the laboratory. You got any ideas?

Well, I mean, we need China to conduct an open investigation into the origins of this virus and they need to allow international observers in to be part of that inquiry, because it matters for all of us how this started. I don't have any information that folks haven’t seen in open source reporting. I think most of our experts believe it's unlikely this was genetically engineered, but it is certainly a possibility that this was a natural virus that may have escaped from a laboratory facility, but I don't think anybody knows definitively one way or the other. And listen, that's a really important conversation to have. And China needs to be held accountable, if in fact, this did escaped from a laboratory, but the most important question is, what are we going to do about it right now? And so I do worry that some in and around the president’s universe, you know, want to focus only on China as a mechanism to deflect blame from the president. And to stop us from asking tough questions about why the President even today, isn't doing the things necessary to help us beat back this virus like standing up a real domestic manufacturing capacity for PPE, and tests, and diagnostic equipment. But, you know, that original question is, I think still outstanding and one that China needs to be open about.

Let me ask you this, Senator Chris Murphy? Is it a bad idea to cut funding to the WHO, the World Health Organization?

It's a catastrophic idea. The WHO is a unique organization. It's the only global public health organization in which every nation is sitting at the table together, even nations that are traditionally adversaries with each other. And like any international organization, it's imperfect. But there is absolutely no way to stand up a global infrastructure to prevent the next pandemic without the WHO. The President has pulled funding from the WHO, because he's just looking for a scapegoat. He's trying to find somebody else to blame so that people don't notice all the ways that he left us vulnerable. The reality is that, you know, his complaint about the WHO being too soft on China in the early days, you know, is effectively the president just trying to deflect away from his own, sort of apologies for China. There was nobody in the early days of this crisis in January and February who was more openly cheerleading the Chinese response than President Trump, on 12 different occasions, he lauded the Chinese response to the crisis praising their transparency. And so for him to now say that we should pull funding for the WHO, because they were soft on China, I think denies reality. And what we should be doing is frankly, further investing in the WHO and using our dollars as leverage to get them to make reforms that everybody knows they have to make in order to be more effective.

Do you think if the Senate went Democratic, that a couple of things would happen fairly automatically?  The Paris Accords would be rejoined if the president of course is defeated, and WHO would get more money?

I certainly would rejoin the Paris Accords. And, you know, I would only recommend ramping up funding to the WHO if we did it in concert with a plan to reform that organization. They, you know, for instance, give far too much power out to their regional bureaus, they don't do enough centralized planning. And so we need to have those tough conversations. But I think there's real opportunity to do bipartisan work here. Mitt Romney and I introduced legislation two weeks ago that would stand up a new coordinating council in the federal government to build that anti-pandemic infrastructure that I'm talking about, that could lead the work to reform the WHO and reinvest in the WHO. So, yes, this is going to be a partisan issue because as long as Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump are running the country, there's really no way to rejoin the global public health leadership network, but I do think there are plenty of Republicans who want to do that. Once we have leaders in the Senate and the White House who want to invest in it.

Why do you think the United States was so unprepared for this, Chris? You know, it does seem that we were really caught off guard.

I think there's two answers to that question. One, there are very specific capacities that President Trump stood down. You know, we did have a program that USAID ran, that put scientists in dozens of countries to identify viruses early so that we could learn about them, develop vaccines and treatments. We actually had that program running in the Wuhan lab that discovered coronavirus, and about two months before they discovered coronavirus, Trump shut down that program and pulled all the scientists out. So there are things that Donald Trump did specifically that left us vulnerable. But you know, as you and I have talked about previously, Alan, you know, we're just badly mis-resourced when it comes to America's national security spending. Right now we spend about 100 times as much money on military hardware, as we do international public health. Today, there's not a single person in the United States who would tell you that an invasion by a foreign army is 100 times more dangerous to the United States than a virus. There are a lot of people who might say the opposite is in fact true. But our spending doesn't reflect that. And so we have to have a bigger discussion about why we spend so little on tracking viruses and preventing them from reaching the United States, and why we spend so much money on aircraft carriers. That’s necessary just as much as is standing back up the programs that Donald Trump's stood down.

I only have a minute but I wanted to ask you, we have a United States healthcare system, if you want to call it a system. Are we learning anything about its deficiencies?

Well, we're certainly learning vulnerabilities. We are dependent on international sourcing of really critical medical equipment, like for instance masks, and we're going to have to have a conversation about how we resource a lot of the production that fell short in the early stages of this crisis and still falls short. And then of course, it just doesn't make a lot of sense to have people's healthcare, so attached to their place of employment, as you're seeing now. Lots of people are losing their jobs, and they're going to have to migrate from one insurance plan to the next right at the moment when they need continuity and healthcare as they might be managing a COVID-19 diagnosis. So, you know, there are a variety of ways to sort of move your healthcare system away from one in which you get your healthcare exclusively through your employer, but that certainly is a vulnerability when you have an epidemic occurring at the same time that lots of people are losing jobs. We've got to have that debate as well.

Senator Chris Murphy, United States Senator Chris Murphy, a great favorite of the people who listen to this station and we so thank you for being with us. We're going to come back another time. And when we do, I got a lot more to ask you.


Dr. Alan Chartock is professor emeritus at the University at Albany. He hosts the weekly Capitol Connection series, heard on public radio stations around New York. The program, for almost 12 years, highlighted interviews with Governor Mario Cuomo and now continues with conversations with state political leaders. Dr. Chartock also appears each week on The Media Project and The Roundtable and offers commentary on Morning Edition, weekdays at 7:40 a.m.