Coronavirus Will Show Us Everything Wrong With American Health Care

The disease isn’t nearly as frightening as a system that will accelerate its spread

This week, we learned of a first U.S. case of novel coronavirus — a respiratory disease initially detected in China — in a patient who had not traveled to any region facing an outbreak, nor been exposed to someone known to be infected. That makes it a possible sign of “community spread,” or “community transmission,” a stage when the vector of exposure is undetermined.

That would be alarming enough, but the details are somehow worse: The patient was admitted to the medical center in UC Davis, in California’s Central Valley, on a Wednesday, but wasn’t tested for coronavirus until that Sunday. The university had requested the testing, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declined to help, explaining that the patient “did not fit the existing CDC criteria” for it. In that time, they likely exposed other people to the virus.

And if you feel your confidence shaken when the national public health institute of the U.S. doesn’t take a hospital staff seriously, well, check out the Twitter feed of Homeland Security Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli. You’d think a government official with “acting” in the title would at least know how to act like he’s appropriately well-informed; instead, he logged on to gripe that a private university wasn’t supplying him with updated maps of areas affected by the coronavirus. As many were at pains to tell Cuccinelli, he has the entire federal apparatus, including a dedicated health agency, at his disposal. Why would he be tweeting like someone mad that an airline didn’t serve pretzels on their commuter flight to Raleigh-Durham?

Oh, hey, it doesn’t stop there. The bad president (remember him?) has tried to radically downplay any fears of a stateside epidemic as a CDC official warned that “this might be bad” and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar called the outbreak an “unprecedented…health care challenge, globally.” Though I guess hoping Trump wouldn’t contradict experts or confuse the messaging on a national problem is a sucker’s game. As far back as 2014, he was using Twitter to spread dangerous misinformation and general bullshit about that year’s Ebola outbreak, telling people the government would neither protect nor be honest with Americans.

Luckily, he’s not coordinating his administration’s overall coronavirus response — that enviable job goes to Vice President Pence, who you may recall oversaw the largest outbreak of HIV in Indiana’s history while governor of the state. He had cut public health funding and later blocked action on needle exchanges; in 2013, a Planned Parenthood clinic in Scott County, the only HIV tester in the area, closed, and that’s where the outbreak began. Naturally, he chose to “pray on” the issue rather than take immediate action. Not good, Michael!

The Trump-Pence brand of flailing, anti-scientific answers to crises beyond their understanding or empathy is nothing short of catastrophic in a country now ravaged by health hoaxes and paranoia. Thanks to anti-vaxxers, we can’t even get a lid on measles — how will we handle a strange new virus from abroad? With racism, mostly. Also, by drinking colloidal silver and bleach. Because we struggle to attain any consensus on basic medical knowledge, we are deeply vulnerable to a biological hazard that is still not understood. Add to this horrific set of circumstances our corrupt, corporate-controlled health care system, which creates untold impediments to swift containment. As always, sick people will refuse treatment or hospital visits for fear of the expense — half of us delay or deny ourselves care, knowing we cannot afford it.

Hell, even an “all clear” is going to cost you dearly:

And ill Americans won’t just avoid testing — they’ll keep going to work, hoping what they have is a simple cold or seasonal flu. They’ll cough in your latte and sneeze on the subway and put their germ-y hands on restroom doorhandles. Service industry workers, undercompensated as is, don’t want to lose the hours they have by staying home sick; many have no guaranteed paid leave for that kind of situation. So they expose their co-workers, their customers and people on their commute to whatever it is they have. Plus, again, whatever insurance they’re enrolled in is likely to be skeletal, with prohibitively high prices and lots of bureaucratic hoops to jump through. You really couldn’t ask for an arrangement better designed to thwart public safety.

I sort of doubt we’ll pass and implement Medicare for All in the next week, meaning we’ll have the pleasure of seeing our fiercely capitalist health-care apparatus crash and burn in all the ways its detractors have warned about for the past century. If you don’t want to be collateral damage, the best advice is to wash your hands and avoid other people.

Oh, those things I do religiously already? Okay. Sounds like a plan.