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Sun 29 March 2020
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CJ Werleman explains why the Trump Administration’s response to the Coronavirus provides a glimpse of its dystopian future.

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The 2013 film Elysium, starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, imagines what human existence on earth will be like in the year 2154, based on an assumption that our enslavement to capitalism continues uninterrupted for the next century.

In this dystopian future, we are no longer divided or defined by nationhood, race or culture – but only by our economic class status, with the ultra-rich living comfortably aboard a luxurious space station called Elysium and the poor left to cobble together an existence on an environmentally ruined and lawless earth.

It is a truly sobering take on the kind of future awaiting our grandchildren after four decades of unfettered capitalism, particularly at a time when our societies are being increasingly divided between the haves and the have nots on a rapidly overheating planet.

If you haven’t seen it, you can experience a sneak preview of the film by watching the way in which the United States is responding to the Coronavirus crisis, specifically in the way the pandemic has laid bare the right’s war on science and its mission to shrink government to a size small enough to “drown in a bathtub”, enabling the rich to pay fewer taxes and threatening the working-class and poor.


Cough on a Rich Person

During a press conference on Thursday, Vice President Mike “Pray the Gay Away” Pence said that the “risk of the Coronavirus to the average American remains low” – moments before stepping away from the podium when a reporter asked whether or not those uninsured for healthcare cover can get tested for the virus, a question that drives at the heart of the Republican Party’s aim to destroy the Affordable Care Act (ACA), otherwise known as Obamacare, on behalf of the powerful health insurance and pharmaceutical industries.

Under the ACA, the number of uninsured Americans fell from 45 million in 2010 to 27 million in 2016. It was the first time in the country’s history that there was a fall in the uninsured rate. The number has climbed again at a rate of 500,000 for every year of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Faced with the outbreak of a pandemic with Coronavirus, the uninsured matter given that the cost of a test for it exceeds $3,500 – a mind-boggling reality that has led some to invoke gallows humour in joking that the smartest thing that the uninsured can do is to cough on a rich person and then await their test results.

The American middle-class has become so hollowed out in the four decades since President Ronald Reagan declared that government is the “problem” not the “solution” that 63% of Americans cannot afford to pay an unexpected bill of $500, even in the event of an emergency. So, at the same time as the rich are complaining about having to cancel their European riverboat cruise vacations, they are stockpiling essential and non-perishable items in the event self-isolation is made necessary, while the bottom two-thirds of the country are unable to afford such preparatory and potentially life-saving measures.

“Poorer households are unlikely to be able to stockpile supplies of food and medication, leaving them exposed should stock in shops and pharmacies dwindle,” Liam Evans, a campaign officer for the UK charity Turn2Us, told The Huffington Post. “The ‘panic’ around the potential spread of the disease has revealed the stark contrast between those who are able to properly prepare and those who aren’t.”

Also, low-paid, time card-punching jobs don’t tend to provide an opportunity for workers to self-isolate by performing their employment duties from home. While it might be easy for professional service employees to maintain productivity away from the office, it is evidently more difficult for a janitor, assembly line worker or retail assistant.

“This could result in a serious loss of income and drag hundreds of thousands of people into poverty,” Evans said.


Feeding Misinformation

Faced with this legitimate crisis, the Trump administration – which has waged war on affordable healthcare and recommended budget cuts for the Centre for Disease Control, the agency which is meant to protect Americans for such outbreaks – has been caught flat-footed, transitioning between downplaying the Coronavirus, suggesting the outbreak to be a “hoax”, accusing Democrats of “fear-mongering” or blaming the former President Barack Obama. 

The right-wing media has generated a litany of Facebook memes that mock the media and liberals for exaggerating concerns, even as the number of confirmed cases in the US has surpassed 150 and California has declared a state of emergency with more than 8,000 potential cases under watch. None of which has stopped Fox News from peddling the lie that Coronavirus is a “hoax”.

The effect of the right’s deliberate misinformation campaign will cost American lives, with numerous accounts revealing how Fox News viewers in particular are resisting social distancing precautions, including avoiding large public gatherings, handshaking and remote work, because of a widespread belief that the virus is over-hyped.

Here, the income-education divide is exacerbating the spread and effect of the Coronavirus. While higher educated-income Americans are getting their information about the virus from fact and science-based reporting, the lower educated-income rungs are being fed misinformation from a President who denies climate science, spreads anti-vaccination conspiracies and calls the Coronavirus a figment of his opponent’s imagination, as well as a Vice President who believes that homosexuality is a sickness that can be cured by gay conversion therapy.

The education-income demographic is the “new political divide in America,” according to the non-partisan public polling organisation Public Opinion Strategies. “President Trump won voters with less than a college education, while Hillary Clinton won among voters with a college degree – and in the years since the election, their choice for their news source follows this pattern as well.”

What we are witnessing today in the US is a current day version of Elysium. The financially well-to-do have the means to adopt self-isolation strategies and engage critically with potentially life-saving information, while having access to healthcare options the moment contagion is suspected. The other part of the country, however, is either bereft of options or befuddled with misinformation.


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