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Lesson 1 from the US Elections, COVID-19 is a Campaign Issue

[By Dr Parkie Mbozi]

IT IS game over. Joe Biden is the final winner; Donald Trump is the loser. Within the week of my last article, Biden has widened his lead from 270 seats to 306 compared to Trump’s. Counting continues in a few counties with inconsequential outcomes.

Biden has both the electoral college and popular vote. Four years ago Trump won the electoral college vote but lost the popular vote to Hilary Clinton. At the time, Trump called his 306 of the electoral vote to Hilary’s 232 a ‘landslide’. I argue that actually, Biden’s double win is The Landslide. The point here is that Trump’s refusal to concede and his winless court battles are nothing but a face-saver from a man with a big ego and who portrays himself as a winner-in-chief, a master negotiator, a master of “The Art of the Deal”.

The world has moved on with the reality of a Biden-led America. Our job as analysts and researchers is to analyse the results. Our research question should be, “why did Trump lose”? In the last article I focused on the Trump-era foreign policy agenda, driven by his “America first” narrative. I argued that his agenda led to America’s isolation from its key allies and the global community generally. I specifically identified: withdrawal from the Paris climate change accord; withdrawal from the Iran nuke deal; withdrawal from the Arms race deal; withdrawal from WHO; recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and eventual re-location of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; the indiscriminate travel ban of some Muslim countries; and, his demeaning of black-led countries, which he called Sh!t holes.

This article focuses on the domestic policy flaws that could be attributed to Trump’s downfall. I specifically focus on his attitude and response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which some analysts say he has been playing politics about while people have been dying in numbers. My ‘thesis’ is that COVID-19 is a campaign issue. Trump is a biggest casualty of the mishandling of the pandemic. Many more can follow, even here in Zambia if our political parties seized the opportunity. The tragedy is that currently they are not, despite the government’s missteps in fighting the pandemic, including the reported looting of COVID-19 funds. Sometimes it makes one wonder if our opposition parties have ‘shadow ministers of health’. Surely, the citizenry deserve better on such matters of public health management, and this can only happen by critically questioning the duty bearers.

Americans may have tuned out of coronavirus news as they focused on the outcome of the presidential election, but the pandemic has quietly been getting worse in the country. The first official case of COVID-19 in the US was reported on January 24. It involved a person in Chicago, Illinois, who had returned from Wuhan, China on January 13. Since then the cases have grown exponentially. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that, “The number of infections in the US has reached new heights in the last seven days, surpassing 150,000 cases in one day for the first time since the outbreak began. With now more than 11 million confirmed cumulative cases, the US has the highest number of infections in the world and the spread of the virus shows no sign of slowing down.”

The current wave of infections is regarded as the third one to hit the US this year but the one major difference is that it is affecting every region at the same time. At the moment, the death toll stands at about 250,000 – again the highest figure in the world and about 20 per cent of the global total of confirmed coronavirus deaths. Despite the progress being made in fighting the infection, the number of daily deaths in the US is on the upswing once again. On average, more than 1,000 people are now dying every day in America and recent daily spikes have been higher than those seen during the summer outbreak. The IHNE model predicts that by mid-January 2021, daily mortality will go up to 2,100.

With more than 60,000 current hospital admissions, the strain on hospitals is growing. Current data shows that there are already more people in hospitals during the current wave than the two previous waves. COVID-19 has also taken away some of Trump’s economic gains of the first three years with many families lining up and depending on food handouts.

Mike Patton, Senior Contributor of the Washington Post writes, “Prior to the pandemic, the U.S. economy was doing very well. Unemployment was at a 50-year low and inflation was also below the Fed’s target of 2.0 per cent. However, because we closed a significant portion of the U.S. economy, ‘real’ GDP growth (i.e. the per cent increase/decrease in economic growth compared to one year prior, ‘net’ of inflation), fell during the second quarter by an astounding 31.40 per cent. These are numbers not seen since the Great Depression.

“Unemployment spiked to its highest rate in the post WWII era, hitting 14.7 per cent earlier this year. Although the rate has fallen for five consecutive months, it is still well above its February reading of 3.5 per cent. In the meantime, those furloughed from the leisure & hospitality and airline industries are left wondering if help will come. The U.S. economy is primarily driven by consumer spending. When consumers spend, companies’ profit and the economy is good. At present, there are 6.8 million more unemployed workers than there were in February.”

While Trump cannot be blamed for the outbreak, as he repeatedly argues, available data show that many Americans hold him responsible for the country’s failure to combat the disease, including for the spread of the pandemic. He is being blamed for holding rallies across the country with ‘maskless’ supporters and ‘supper spreader’ events within White House grounds, which resulted at least 18 of his aides, including himself and first lady Melanie, catching the virus. Further, Cornell University research concluded that “Trump is a major spreader of misinformation”, just as he is seen as the Godfather of COVID-19 and mask deniers.

While he was able to discharge himself from hospital within four days of his admission and boast of 14 doctors around him, many of his aides and staff were forced into self-isolation for a minimum of 14 days. Chief of staff Mark Meadows, the latest victim of COVID-19, said anyone interacting with Trump had been wearing “full PPE, masks, goggles and the like.”

Post-election studies focused on why Trump was booted out in preference for Biden are yet to be concluded. However, in pre-election studies handling of COVID-19 and the economy were highly rated. According to the PEW (2020) six-in-every 10 voters (62 per cent) said handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was a very important factor in their decision about who to support in the election. COVID-19 has negatively impacted on the economy and the US is now in a recession. It reflects in the majority (79 per cent) who cited the economy as the most important to them. This was followed by healthcare (68 per cent), which is also related to COVID-19. COVID-19 and economy are interwoven. By doing badly in handling COVID-19, Trump was actually undermining his own popularity through the economic gains of the past three years. In the nutshell, the voters showed their displeasure of his handling of the pandemic by voting him out, and in a big way.

Lesson 1 to be learned from the US is that COVID-19 is a very serious campaign issue that our opposition should capitalise on not only for political capital but also, and more importantly, as part of the checks and balances expected of the opposition. COVID-19 is caused by a virus, just like AIDS. AIDS has been regarded as a cross-cutting issue, which affects a number of sectors. So too is COVID-19.

For starters, Zambia has a big number of COVID-19 cases. This is a clue that our interventions have not been as effective as our neighbours’. Our political parties can take this matter up. Second, COVID-19 involves a lot of money. There was a time AIDS campaigns in this country and across the world were dubbed ‘AIDS business’. In my article on the role of the media in Covid earlier this year I wrote that, “COVID-19 has potential to take the same route.” Society expects opposition parties to work as guardians and protectors of the public interest and resources on their behalf. They expect opposition parties to gather information about wrongdoings of people in power and deliver it to the public. In the context of the COVID-19, the opposition is expected to keep an eye on how the resources allocated for the cause are being handled, focusing on corruption and any wrongdoings.

So far the Zambian media and the Auditor General reports have reported widespread abuse of COVID-19 funds. News Diggers edition of November 16 carried an article titled, “The COVID-19 Supply Scandal at MoH: How friends, relatives ‘competed’, won contracts…”

The opposition is expected to pick up these allegations and escalate them as campaign issues in by-elections and during 2021. Similarly, the opposition can analyse how the government has handled COVID-19 vis-à-vis critical sectors such as economy, education, agriculture, social sector, etc. As I write, the Ministry of Education just issued a circular dated November 13, which announces changes to the school calendar once again. The 2020 Term 3, which had earlier been pushed to January-March 2021, has now been phased out altogether. Our opposition parties could scrutinise this decision and raise issues around the impact of this flip-flopping on the learning outcomes in both short and long-term.
Finally, two US based companies – Pfizer and Moderna – have successfully completed trials of two vaccines, which as we understand are fully subscribed by the US and other rich countries. Our opposition parties could scrutinse and raise issues about inadequate budgetary allocation to procure the vaccines and roll out immunisation. A few days ago we read that Zambia has opted for the Russian vaccine, whose efficacy has been challenged by other players, including WHO.

To conclude, COVID-19 offers so much ammunition for the opposition parties to incorporate in their armories. This public health agenda has far reaching ramifications. The Americans seized and use it to shoot down Trump. Why don’t we?

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