“WE HAVE AN INVISIBLE ENEMY”: COVID-19 and its Blowback in the United States
It was on the last day of 2019 when the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reported a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan. Since then, the virus was first declared by the World Health Organization(WHO) a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, then a major worldwide pandemic (of epic proportions). Being mainly spread via small droplets produced by coughing, sneezing, or talking, the COVID-19 virus has spread rapidly across the world, reaching the first ten countries within the first month.
As of June 2020, more than 7.87 million cases have been reported in more than 188 countries and territories; 3.75 million people have recovered, but over 400,000 people have perished due to the virus. During the weeks’ worth of window of opportunity to prepare before the virus entered the US, President Trump did nothing but intentionally underplay the threat and keep up a positive messaging campaign in order to stabilize the stock market.
Early into the spread of COVID-19, Trump lined up executives from various American corporations and insisted they help expedite testing to stop the pandemic; nothing ultimately came out of that meeting. Trump constantly bickered and argued with state governors on when to lift the quarantine and “open up”, further deepening the chasm between federal- and state-level administrations at a time when solidarity is most urgently needed.
In a comparison between China and the US, there is a clear distinction between one that has seen a boost in international reputation and one that looks crippled by the crisis. While specific causal relations between policies and blowback are easier to corroborate, others are much harder to track down and locate.
There have been three main lines of “blowback.” First, the privatization of healthcare and the rise of neoliberalist traditions led to a deadly dilemma for the American public, having to choose between employment and personal health. Second, the development of neoliberal capitalism as a “fighting ideology”, along with both Republicans and Democrats being too vested in corporate interests and not being well-suited for the radical changes called for by the BLM movement, furthered the political crisis. Third, years of post-Cold War American exceptionalism has led to a foreign policy tradition that has allowed the US to act petulantly and lead to its allies being unresponsive at times of crisis.
Some, such as the US propensity to undervalue multilateralism in favor of unilateralism, have easier examples to point to as significant precursors that should not have been ignored. Others are far more complex and nuanced than can be dealt in this article.
“Blowback”: Definition and Examples
Chalmers Johnson, American political scientist and author of BLOWBACK: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, is the first proponent of the concept of “blowback”. Originally an intelligence community term for describing the possibility that covert actions in foreign lands by — for example, the CIA — could lead to retaliations against Americans, the term came to be expanded to mean any policies with unintended consequences.
The most famed examples include the CIA operations in Central America leading to the drug epidemic in the US, Operation Iraqi Freedom which ultimately toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein leading to the rise of ISIS, and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 leading to the housing market bubble that crashed and caused a worldwide recession in 2008. And there is no doubt that exacerbation of the American crisis is all that of America’s own doing and is a “blowback” from previous policies. Not only does the pandemic and the current situation in the US count as a “blowback” but that it is a blowback on every dimension in American government and society.
American Imperial Overstretch and its “Blowback”
Imperial overstretch is a situation where an empire projects its power and influence beyond the range of its control; often due to ideological preoccupation, this leads to the collapse of the imperial system, or worse, the empire itself. This phenomenon was most evident during the Asian Financial Crisis where, after defeating fascism and communism, the United States believed that its ideological world domination was imminent and the only thing standing between itself and the latter was the “Asian model:” an amalgamation of East Asian capitalist societies, hand-picked by the US to become model states in the competition against the Communist Bloc.
When these countries came under American military domination by the beginning of the Cold War, it was necessary to maintain continuous economic growth to ensure loyalty in their alliances to the US and continuous support of US troops stationed there. Over time, however, this pattern produced a huge trade deficit in the US, losses of many American jobs, and a rise of income inequality.
By the 1990s, the East Asian capitalist societies had based their economic growth on the “Asian model”, one that valued export-oriented growth over domestic consumption, and corporate interests over private spending. In order to undermine their system, Americans began to push for “globalization” and “free trade capitalism:” both terms which are easily replaceable with “colonization” and “gunboat imperialism.” This essentially brought about a dangerously large amount of foreign capital being freely moved in and out of countries and corporations anywhere.
This system of quick-flowing capital was especially dangerous for East Asia; the finance system was not built for speculation and investment, but for asset accumulation and enlarging productive capacity. Even worse, when the East Asian economies fell after foreign capital left as quickly as they had arrived, the US enforced reforms to make the economic structure more like theirs — because the US was unable to see that the original system was based on Cold War-era preferential treatment and easier access to the American market, they argued that these economies were failing due to a lack of globalization and free trade capitalism.
The subsequent continued hollowing of industry in the US, and severe rollback in the trust of East Asian allies in their relationship with the US is “blowback” from America’s imperial overstretch.
COVID-19 and the US: Blowback in Healthcare and Economy
Healthcare in the United States has always been a nagging problem, but the COVID-19 pandemic crisis has exacerbated the situation to the brink of collapse. Even when the most concerning groups of individuals at high-risk for severe infection is not put into the equation, the coronavirus outbreak carries risks for financial consequences for any American hospitalized or forced out of work.
There are estimates of around 6 million Americans who are uninsured but have high risk for infection, but that estimate may have been low. In a separate analysis, 18.2 million out of American adults who were at high-risk of infection were un- or under-insured; in total, at least 27 million Americans lack any health insurance, and that figure is set to rise as millions are forced out of work.
All thanks to privatized healthcare — in the US, healthcare spending is higher than any other country in percentage of GDP; this is a continuous trend since at least 1980. The US federal government funds more than half of total healthcare spending, but because it supplies public insurance in the form of Medicare, for seniors, and Medicaid, for the poorest, paying through a balkanized network of healthcare providers instead of directly controlling the hospital system.
Therefore, there is an incentive for hospitals to either earn money through commercial insurers or request government subsidies. Even when funding is increased, it is for administration costs and not to the benefit of the patients nor doctors. The situation is even more dire for rural regions; in poorer hospitals that cater to low-income communities in the city or rural areas where population is declining, payments from Medicare and Medicaid do not cover hospital costs as the price of staff, equipment and drugs rise in the face of the pandemic.
With the United States healthcare system largely privatized and run by for-profit corporations on either the insurance or hospital level, the system quickly succumbed to massive bankruptcy when there is no financial profit made. In the context of mass privatization that was in place since the Second World War, the sick and those that need healthcare the most must compete with insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, physicians, and corporate shareholders for drugs and medical treatment — and this process often incurs painfully high payment for those that just want to get better.
The unexpected consequence of the United States healthcare industry being heavily privatized, and being built as a private good rather than a public good, is that those uninsured simply cannot bear the financial cost of treatment and even those that are insured can find the cost too burdensome. This results in their having to choose between bankruptcy and COVID-19 — both life-crippling consequences.
The issue of widespread privatization and lack of government oversight in the economy is another chronically American problem that has become exacerbated by the pandemic. In the initial days of the spread of COVID-19, the socioeconomic effects felt in both the US and China were quite similar: both saw a spike in unemployment rates. For the United States, there was a sharp increase in unemployment claims, and numbers remain above 20 million as of the end of May.
According to the US Bureau of Labor, this can be translated to around the same number of jobs having disappeared since April. While the Chinese have moved on since that period to direct intervention in the labor market and fought to lower unemployment as a whole, the United States was unyielding in keeping to its neoliberalist traditions and intervening in the labor market only indirectly: liquidity was offered to firms in loans, while incentives were given to firms to maintain their workforce.
The policy backfired dramatically when firms used the emergency lending program to boost their stock value and pay out dividends to stockholders instead of keeping the workforce, leading to an even higher escalation of unemployment. There is, therefore, no doubt that the neoliberal, hyper-financialized structures of American capitalism contributed to the explosion in unemployment as COVID-19 hit. In short “Blowback” in the US healthcare and economic sector was simply waiting to happen.
COVID-19 and the US: Blowback in Domestic Politics
In the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the structures and institutions that kept the US political system frozen in place are finally falling apart. This is firstly evident by those in Washington D.C. and their preoccupation with economic growth and the stock market over human life. Donald Trump, President of the United States, has made the default position that the country has stopped trying to halt the disease in its tracks, but will have to live with it.
Trump said in early June 2020, “we want the continued blanket lockdown to end for the states. We may have some embers or some ashes,… but we’ll put them out:” a powerful statement made in the context that on the same day, a thousand people died from COVID-19 and tens of thousands more infected. Trump has been calling for a reopening of the economy for weeks — a position is also held by many Congressmen of the Republican Party.
In a Fox News interview, the lieutenant governor of Texas Dan Patrick told Tucker Carlson in late March 2020, “You know, Tucker, no one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’ And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.’” Through years of corporate lobbying and the establishment of neoliberal capitalism as a “fighting ideology” as Johnson terms it, the American political system was now unable to view the world beyond economic terms and began imputting human lives into its cost-benefit analysis: a true blowback to the American public.
The second evidence in the American political and societal system falling apart is in race relations, the nemesis to American social cohesion. With disproportionally black Americans falling ill to COVID-19 and disproportionally black and low-income Americans left without healthcare coverage, the current pandemic has only acted to exacerbate preexisting political problems of racial inequality in the US.
When George Floyd was killed during an arrest when a white police officer pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes on May 25, 2020, the whole country quickly erupted into emotional protest. As of early June, more than 10,000 people have been arrested during the protests. Reactions of Floyd’s death from the Republican Party, particularly that of President Trump, was expectedly partisan; he offered no prayer, nor words of peace or comfort.
What was more laughable however was the response from the Democrats: both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer kneeled for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while wearing exotic African garb, in an apparent show of support to the Black Lives Matter movement. In the face of the Democratic presidential candidate Biden proposing a dramatic increase in spending for “community policing” and announcing a police reform bill that is woefully inadequate, the Democratic Party leadership engaged in showmanship and politicking that only went to show their lack of willingness to challenge the status quo.
A notable aspect of the current civil disruption is that almost in a series of déjà vu, it is easy to recollect other examples of protesting police brutality against black Americans in the past decade: Ferguson, St. Louis, “taking the knee” and others all come to mind. Yet it should be remembered that during those same times of hardship (under Democratic President Obama at the time), the same words of consolation were uttered, tears were wept, and nothing was ultimately changed. Both the Republicans and Democrats — being mere facades of representative democracy and rule of law — ultimately do nothing to solve the problem of race relations in the United States.
COVID-19 and the US: Blowback in Foreign Relations
The catastrophic failure within the US to control and contain the COVID-19 virus along with subsequent societal and economic fallout may have been enough to tarnish the idea of post-Cold War American hegemony; but American leadership (or lack thereof) along with its unilateral policies on the global stage in recent months has made the country look like a pariah state more than ever before.
It is almost two decades ago since Noam Chomsky has declared the United States a pariah state. Now in this day and age, his words could not have been more prescient in this “blowback”: after years of living in a cloak of supremacy, the US makes decisions unilaterally and threatens governments and organizations alike, and global powers try to work around its existence.
At the end of May, after months of criticizing the World Health Organization and its connection with China, President Trump declared that he would withdraw from the WHO, along with temporarily freezing US funding to the international health agency. There has been no absence of criticism towards the US in its unilateral decision to terminate membership; from Norway’s Prime Minister to Bill Gates, all were united in their vocal criticism of President Trump’s decision.
This was particularly due to the US being the WHO’s top funding source for assessed and specified voluntary contributions and US funds go directly to specific projects such as polio eradication efforts and fighting the Ebola outbreak in the DR Congo. It is a very likely outcome that, due to the US’s petulant outbursts, the WHO may stop receiving American funding — leading to disastrous consequences across the world in fighting infectious diseases ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to Ebola to HIV/AIDS.
The unilateral actions the US is taking, however, is not unprecedented. Rather the “blowback” — in the form of less Americans being able to access vaccines and healthcare equipment from international organizations, or its allies fending for their own instead of combating the crisis together — is from years of US policies blatantly supporting its own over others and taking unilateral action and even threats towards its closest friends.
During the NAFTA trade deal, it was America that was threatening loyal allies such as Canada into submission and acting without a care in the world of the opinion of others. During preliminary agreements in replacing the decades-old NAFTA with the updated USMCA the US and Mexico began negotiating with Canada on on the details and legal language of USMCA. While the final language of the treaty was modified and edited as Canada later participated in the negotiations, the deplorable part of the negotiation was that the US President not only excluded an ally from trade negotiations due to perceptions of unfair trade but went further to threaten Canada and their automobile industry with an unprecedented 25% tariff. This forced Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to join the negotiations table. After the signing of USMCA, President Trump touted the renegotiation as a “terrific deal for all of us” and as a success of unilateral action over bilateral negotiations; this attitude by the US President and administration of treating any state or organization except itself as inferior has led to Western allies slowly abandoning them.
This was most evident when Trump’s announced plans for an expanded Group of 7 (G7) conference later this year was attacked by German Chancellor Merkel and British Prime Minister Johnson, both traditionally staunch US allies. The global crisis, usually a rallying moment of hope and solidarity amongst countries around the world, has instead exacerbated the severe weakening of the US-dominated Western alliance system.
The current crisis in the US is “blowback” from previous policies and actions, ranging from hyper-financialization of healthcare to mistreating its allies. Socio-economically, the US is in a sharp increase in the infected and unemployed; politically, both Democrats and Republicans are too hellbent on defending neoliberal capitalism instead of fighting for the American public; internationally, the US is quickly losing influence amongst its allies. Unless the US recognizes that its own policies and actions are exacerbating the crisis and continues blaming others, it will be a continuous road downhill for the American Empire. Donald Trump proclaimed during a March news conference on COVID-19: “we have an invisible enemy.” America does have an invisible enemy; that enemy is its own actions and consequences.