When President Trump, Republican leaders, right-wing think tanks and billionaire CEOs aggressively push to send people back to work before the coronavirus is contained, this is not a “reopening.” It’s the opposite: an unraveling of the conditions that we need to safely and sustainably reopen our society. While the red herring of a “reopening” has dominated news cycles and Trump administration press conferences, the United States has moved ever further away from what we all desperately seek: a point at which this all ends, and it’s safe to go to the library, stroll maskless through a park, eat dinner with a loved one, and go to work without fear. The Right doesn’t own the “reopening” terrain — it has forfeited it by barreling down a road that leads to mass death, suffering, and more and more closures down the road.
Forty-two states have either started “reopening” their economies or imminently plan to do so, despite the fact that most of them have failed to meet even the non-binding criteria put forward by the White House: that they have a 14-day “downward trajectory” of known coronavirus cases or rates of positive tests (this standard was criticized by public health experts for being ill-defined and insufficient). Alarmingly, as of May 7, more than half of the states that had either reopened or planned to do so (30 at the time) have seen an increase in case counts or positive tests over the past two weeks, according to a tracker from the New York Times. In Georgia, for example, testing levels are well below the minimum recommended by experts, and positive test rates remain above a threshold of 10%. Yet Georgia’s governor, Republican Brian Kemp, has instructed nail salons and bowling alleys to open. Kemp presented himself as the champion of workers he is sending into perilous condition, declaring April 17, “I know people are chomping [at the bit] to get back to work.” Trump has embraced the state-level push to reopen, and even encouraged protests against governors who maintain shelter-in-place instructions, declaring in late April, “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” and “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”
It is no mystery what is going to happen as a result of this push. There is a consensus among experts that the United States doesn’t have the measures in place to reopen without causing mass death. As the New York Times noted on May 11, “Deaths are already far higher than the 60,000 once predicted by August. Even President Trump has begun to talk of a toll that may reach 100,000, perhaps more.” An Associated Press analysis from May 12 found that even as Trump pushes the country towards a swift reopening, “thousands of people are getting sick from COVID-19 on the job.” There are signs of new coronavirus hot spots around the country, including in states that are reopening. Former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Tom Frieden has been vocal about the dire consequences. “We’re not reopening based on science,” he told the Times. “We’re reopening based on politics, ideology and public pressure. And I think it’s going to end badly.” We already know Black, Latino and poor people are disproportionately dying from Covid-19 — this horrific trend is almost certain to continue in subsequent spikes.
“We are way premature for opening when the cases nationwide have not gone down but continue to go up,” Deborah Burger, the co-president of National Nurses United (NNU), told In These Times. “We are still experiencing a rationing of personal protective equipment, N95 masks, and other protective gear. We just did a vigil for over 100 nurses who have died.”
Dire warnings have even been issued by Trump’s own health officials. On May 12, two of the top health officials in the federal government warned a Senate committee that the coronavirus is not contained and that reopening too swiftly is profoundly dangerous. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, leading U.S. infectious disease expert, warned that “there is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control.” Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the current director of the CDC — who was hired by Trump and has a disturbing history of handling the AIDS epidemic — pleaded, “We are not out of the woods yet.”
Yet, in public discourse, the language of “reopening” is being largely conceded to the right. Art Laffer, the economist behind Reagan-era tax cuts, has received considerable media coverage calling for wages to be slashed and workers to be sent back to their jobs at risk to their lives. So has the Koch-funded Heritage Foundation, which has publicly flaunted its reopening “wish list” which excludes robust testing. We are not seeing similar air time given to any vision of a safe, public-health-focused reopening. Democrats have, by and large, failed to make this framing central to their strategy, much less go on the offense against the cynical and deadly GOP strategy.
As the Right marches us into dangerous thickets, we’re not taking the steps we need to find our way out of the woods. Social distancing is just one tool to slow the spread of the virus and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed by the need for acute care. But until we have a vaccine, additional tools are vital to minimize the spread of the virus: contact tracing and testing.
Contact tracing involves identifying and contacting those who have tested positive for Covid-19, discovering who they have been in contact with, and reaching out to those contacts to ensure that they quarantine themselves. Of course, any such effort must remain firmly under the purview of public health, subject to the highest privacy standards like HIPAA protections, and never be used for surveillance, policing, or private data collection (some states’ reliance on the National Guard and tech companies for contact tracing raises profound concerns). While this approach may be difficult to imagine in the United States, whose default posture is a law enforcement response to social problems, it’s eminently feasible — unlike a safe reopening without contact tracing and before we have a vaccine.
A contact tracing program would require a minimum of 100,000 new workers, and former CDC director Tom Frieden suggests it could take up to 300,000. In their latest HEROES Act, which utterly fails to create a robust social safety net, House Democrats proposed $75 billion for “testing, contact tracing, and other activities necessary to effectively monitor and suppress Covid-19.” But there is no political sign that a coordinated contact tracing effort will be adopted on a national level anytime soon. Instead, we are seeing a patchwork of state initiatives that leave large swaths of the country without this key public health protection.
Widespread testing, carried out firmly in the public health domain, must go hand-in-hand with a contact tracing plan, according to experts. After all, it is testing that allows tracers to track people who are potentially infected. In a position statement on what a public reopening should look like, NNU calls for widespread contact tracing and testing. “Free, reliable polymerase chain reaction testing must be made widely available — including to low-income communities and communities of color — regardless of known exposure or symptom status,” the union declares.
Natalie Dean, a biostatistics professor at the University of Florida, told Vox, “The whole point of this social distancing is to buy us time to build up capacity to do the types of public health interventions we know work. If we’re not using this time to scale up testing to the level that we need it to be … we don’t have an exit strategy. And then when we lift things, we’re no better equipped than we were before.”
This is not a fringe position. World Health Organization spokesperson Dr. Margaret Harris told CNN, “You need to check that people who have symptoms actually have the virus, and then find people who they’ve been in contact with and isolate them. If you can’t do that, then you go back to square one.”
It’s an understatement to say Trump has squandered this opportunity. While experts have called for mass testing — from 500,000 to tens of millions of tests per day, the United States has averaged far less: about 260,000 daily tests. As Vox noted on May 11, “when controlling for population, America is behind several countries in terms of Covid-19 testing,” namely Denmark, New Zealand, Germany, Canada and Italy.
The contrast between the United States and South Korea is stark. By the end of February, South Korea had the second worst outbreak of coronavirus in the world, next to China. Yet, as Derek Thompson writes at The Atlantic, “just as South Korea appeared to be descending into catastrophe, the country stopped the virus in its tracks. It accomplished this through a combination of widespread contact tracing, testing, and fastidious isolation of those sick or at risk of infection.” Business Insider noted in a May 9 article, “South Korea’s testing total so far, when broken down into number of tests performed per million citizens, seems to be about 700 times” that of the United States.
South Korea’s response was not without its problems. Its use of surveillance in contract tracing opens the door to government snooping and privacy violation beyond the pandemic. But these civil liberties concerns are not what’s stunted the U.S. response. Rather, the cause lies in decades of deliberate right-wing attacks on public goods and a pathological indifference to Black and Brown lives from our ruling elite.
And even South Korea’s controlled opening was dangerous, leading to a cluster of new cases in Seoul, prompting that city’s mayor to indefinitely close all bars and clubs. But even considering this spike, South Korea’s outbreak has been dramatically less lethal than that in the United States. According to Vox, “As of May 11, the country of about 50 million people has had nearly 11,000 confirmed infections and over 250 deaths, compared with roughly 1.3 million cases and more than 80,000 deaths in the US, which is home to 330 million.”
Corporate media is also uncritically repeating the line that radical anti-science Republican governors are pushing a “reopening” when they’re simply delaying another inevitable shutdown. “Georgia governor to outline steps to reopen state’s economy,” an Atlanta Journal Constitution headline reads. “[Florida] Governor announces reopening plan for state” the Miami Herald tells us. “Reopening” is presented as the objective when every epidemiology model tells us their efforts will have the opposite effect — the rush to “reopen” with no testing or vaccine will just expedite the spread of the disease, cause more death, then lead to an un-reopening. These aren’t efforts to “reopen” — they are instead public relations gestures to appease corporate interests and bolster their own image of “doing something.”
If Trump or any of these Republican governors touting their “reopening” showed up to a press conference and announced they had cracked Cold fusion, or invented a perpetual motion machine, these brazenly anti-science gimmicks would not be reported on without a heavy dose of skepticism. Why then are their equally dubious plans to “reopen” the economy with zero buy-in from the science community not treated with equal contempt and incredulity?
Yet, Trump has repeatedly dismissed calls for increased testing capacity, bizarrely using the Covid-19 infection of Katie Miller, press secretary to Mike Pence and wife of Trump aide Stephen Miller, to make his point. “This is why the whole concept of tests aren’t necessarily great. The tests are perfect but something can happen between the test where it’s good and then something happens and, all of a sudden, she was tested very recently and tested negative. And then today, I guess, for some reason she tested positive,” Trump said May 8. Responding to these comments, Dean Baker, economist and co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told In These Times, “I don’t think Trump literally understands testing as an issue.”
While Trump refuses to adopt these basic building blocks of a public health response, far more is needed. It is impossible to divorce public health measures to contain the virus from social programs to ensure people are able survive in the interim. People must have houses in order to self-isolate, and a guaranteed income in order to stay home. Prisons, jails and immigrant detention centers, which have become petri dishes for the virus, must be emptied — lest we subject people to a possible death sentence. Economist Dean Baker underscores that we need robust worker protections and a revitalization of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). “OSHA has been gutted for decades and cut back its capacity enormously,” he tells In These Times. “OSHA should have been proactive — it should have been out in front.” In the world’s largest military empire, we also have a unique responsibility to stop the wars, bombings, and sanctions that are making the world more vulnerable to the coronavirus, from Iran to Yemen.
That is to say, the Left has an opportunity to articulate a vision for a safe, humane, and just reopening — something the Democratic leadership is failing, or unwilling, to do. While the GOP opens the door to mass death, Democrats are failing to fight for a robust safety net that would allow people to shelter in place without facing food insecurity, mass suffering and destitution. Their paltry, one-time checks and unemployment insurance that excludes countless millions, including all undocumented people, has left countless people free-falling without a net. A hasty reopening is worse, but it is unconscionable that Democrats are not fighting for a model of sheltering in place that is actually viable for the vast majority of U.S. residents.
Even as ordinary people struggle, they still want society to adhere to public health standards. Despite the outsized media attention given to astroturfed “reopen” rallies, polling suggests that the rush to reopen goes against the will of a majority of people in the United States. According to a Yahoo News/YouGov coronavirus poll published May 8, 59% of people in the United States think the reopening of states like Georgia, Florida, Minnesota and Texas is “moving too fast,” just 33% think it’s “about right,” and 8% think it’s “too slow.” Another Yahoo News/YouGov poll, conducted April 17 to 19, finds 71% of people in the United States are more worried about reopening too quickly than too slowly, only 29% are concerned about opening too slowly.
There is public will to do what’s needed to prevent people from being sacrificed, yet the Right is pushing a fake reopening that will only kill people and invite more shutdowns. As long as Democrats and the Left cede the ground of what “reopening” should look like, the messaging war is being lost. Everyone urgently wants to see a genuine reopening. We must show that we have a real, workable plan to do so — and that people’s present sacrifices are towards this ultimate goal — not treat a rushed, far-right campaign as something remotely resembling what a real “reopening” would look like. It’s not, and we need to make sure the public knows this.
Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Intercept, The Nation, and Tom Dispatch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.