Stephen Gottlieb: Worth Fussing About In This Pandemic | WAMC

Stephen Gottlieb: Worth Fussing About In This Pandemic

Mar 24, 2020

I don’t want to talk about topic no. 1. I thought talking about politics might provide comic relief. But what’s funny about that? Politics is deadly serious, precisely because people’s lives depend on how elected officials take care of the rest of us, or whether they’re focused only on optics.

Doctors and nurses are being forced to make tragic choices about priorities for medical equipment and facilities in short supply. In this kind of situation there’s always a risk of decisions being corrupted by unexamined prejudices, and that needs to be avoided. But I know that if I get the coronavirus, my treatment will depend on how overwhelmed the facilities are. The usual question is how many lives can be saved. Wherever that would put me on line is reasonable.

But this country, which constantly boasts about being the best, deserves criticism for losing a full two months by comparison to many other countries dealing with the virus. That delay meant we’ll face many more cases and lose many more people than we should have. We refused the World Health Organization’s offer of a test used across much of the globe, while the White House boaster-in-chief treated the pandemic as a hoax. That, and the fact that our health care system still doesn’t take care of everyone, even when everyone’s health depends on everyone else’s, justifies deep disappointment.

Trump repeatedly minimized and mocked the pandemic, describing it as a Democratic “hoax.” It took Fox News host Tucker Carlson to go to a party at Mar-O-Lago and tell Trump this was a serious pandemic before Trump paid attention. It took Sen. Schumer to tell Trump to activate the Defense Production Act when the man in the White House hadn’t bothered.

Now of course he’s playing catch-up, bragging constantly while the governors, mayors, and the professionals at the National Institutes of Health and the Center for Disease Control are doing the real work, as he well knows.

But let me pull back from the current details. For years we eliminated “surplus” hospital beds, everything not in regular use. This president continued, cutting “extras,” like those at the CDC whose jobs were to plan ahead to prevent epidemics, or the office at the Security Council meant to coordinate responses to global pandemics. With such efficiencies, nothing’s left when we need it now.

This country has long been so focused on efficiency and not crossing so-called bridges before we get there, that we refuse to plan ahead, and wait for problems to become crises. We’ve turned the notion of freedom into a justification for selfishness instead of an opportunity to push politicians to behave like statesmen pursuing the public interest. We’ve reached a point where civil servants, people who have spent their lives and careers on our behalf, can be maligned as the “deep state,” instead of thanking them for their service. We’ve lost a notion of the public interest and a notion that teamwork has been a great virtue of American economic and political culture. We need a balance of teamwork and independence but the combination defines the moral fiber that we have been losing and paying dearly for.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

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