Sunday, July 19, 2020

THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC & A TALE OF TWO COUNTRIES: THE US AND INDONESIA


By Lily Hikam

Some of you may die, and that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.” (Lord Farquaad in “Shrek”)

The United States of America is struggling in handling this COVID-19 pandemic. Out of all the “developed” countries in the world, the United States have the highest number of reported positive cases, with the latest tally at 3,8 million (nobody knows what the actual case number since testing is limited in the greatest country on Earth) and the highest number of deaths in the world at 142.733, surpassing the number of American soldiers killed in the Vietnam and Iraq wars put together.

Adding to these horrifying statistics is the skyrocketing unemployment number, with 16% of the population unemployed. The economic recession due to COVID-19 is comparable to that of the Great Depression where 25% of the population was unemployed. Furthermore, as I’ve stated in my previous article: in the US, healthcare is tied to employment. So now these unfortunate people who have lost their jobs, through no fault of their own, I might add, are now without healthcare. One may wonder, why is it so hard for the United States to get this pandemic under control?

As the richest country in the history of the world, one would assume that the US would have the resources necessary to get this pandemic under control, or at least flatten the curve. As an outside observer it will be easy to claim, “This is all because the Trump Administration is incompetent”. While it might be tempting to lay all the blame at the feet of the Trump Administration, it’s too simplistic of an analysis and misses the whole picture. I’m not saying the Trump Administration is blameless. They acted too late and didn’t take the threat of a pandemic seriously. Trump even fired pandemic experts from the National Security Council (NSC), leaving the United States vulnerable to any incoming pandemic. One can blame the Trump Administration.

However to assume that the Democratic Party is blameless in this situation is utterly wrong and far from the truth.

American citizens received a one-time stimulus payment to the tune of $1.200 (Rp 17 million). Where do they get this number, you might ask. Simple: the federal minimum wage is $7,25 per hour (Rp 101.500). Assuming you work 40 hours per week and with 4 weeks in a month, you get $1.160, which when rounded up comes to $1.200. Now, compare this to the $5 Trillion in bailout money that American corporations received and the $1 Trillion of stimulus money being pumped into the stock market daily. What the American people received from the government was crumbs in comparison to the whole loaf of bread that corporations received. Sounds outrageous, right? It is even more outrageous when I tell you that this stimulus bill that disproportionately benefit the wealthy and corporations was approved with bipartisan support in the House of Representative and the Senate. Both Democrats and Republicans joined together to pass this bill.

Now, imagine living through a pandemic without healthcare and without income. Imagine that you’ve just been fired, because the business you’re working for decide to downsize since all the customers are self-quarantining. Then your local government instituted a mandatory stay-at-home order, basically forcing you to stay home without any income, only the one-time $1200 payment that you somehow have to use to cover groceries and rent. The first month of pandemic comes and goes and with it so do the economic assistance. Yet, the rent and mortgage bills keep coming because the government isn’t instituting a rent/mortgage cancellation, just a freeze that ends soon. Therefore, soon the rent/mortgage you owe since the start of the pandemic will be due, and if you can’t pay, you’re evicted.

Conveniently, the eviction ban that most states instituted will also end at the end of the month. Imagine that you still can’t find a job because the local businesses in your area can’t afford to add another person on their payroll because they didn’t receive a small business loan from the government. Rather, based on new reports those “small business loans” are shown to benefit big businesses. So now, you have no choice but to break quarantine and put yourself at risk of virus exposure just to make ends meet. You’re struggling to make ends meet, then you see on the news Dr. Fauci, the nation’s top expert on the fight against COVID-19, openly admitted that at the beginning he and the Administration lied about the efficacy of wearing masks because they wanted to make sure that masks are available for healthcare workers. A lie that aided in the spread of the coronavirus!.

The lack of economic assistance that would have aided people and businesses in their effort to flatten the curve was non-existent, and trust in public health officials plummeted after the George Floyd protest and the public admission of lies regarding masks. Adding to this already disastrous situation is the Trump Administration’s announcement that they will reduce testing (because clearly we need less testing right now), a cut to the CDC’s budget and still neither Presidential candidates who are seeking the votes of the American people in the next presidential election believe in providing universal healthcare for the American people in the time of pandemic.

This, in a nutshell, is how America is coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. No economic assistance and no healthcare for the American people. Big and small businesses are forced to reopen too soon, because they can’t afford to be shut down for an extended period of time, exacerbating the spread of the virus. Record unemployment is causing 32% of homeowners to miss their mortgage or rent payment, which will result in a new homelessness crisis once the eviction ban is lifted.

Every day, the United States sets a single-day record for most coronavirus cases reported. At this point, everyone seems to be numb to the dire straits they are in. The uncontrolled rise of COVID-19 cases is a consequence of a set of policies that are not aimed at helping the people, but are aimed at propping up the economy and the market. These 140 thousand dead have been sacrificed at the altar of the stock market, their lives expendable and replaceable to ensure the NASDAQ and the Dow Jones remained in the green.

And so it saddens me to see that my own beloved country, Indonesia, is not learning from how disastrous the United States is handling the COVID-19 pandemic, rather it seems to be copying it. I joked with my fiancé that Indonesia is the United States of ASEAN, since we’re beating any other countries in the region with the sheer number of cases and deaths. Just today (18 July 2020), it was reported that Indonesia has surpassed China in positive COVID-19 cases!

Truth be told, Indonesian healthcare system is a bit better than America’s for-profit healthcare system, with the presence of BPJS, but the government’s response to the pandemic is lackluster to say the least. There was no urgency to mitigate the crisis, there was a lot of downplaying of how urgent this pandemic is. Jokowi’s reluctance of imposing a quarantine, stating it’s not suitable to the Indonesian culture, only fueled the spread of the virus. And now there is a push to return to normalcy (the so-called ‘new normal’ campaign, then rescinded after it was failing), to lift the physical distancing mandate, despite all evidence to the contrary that Indonesia does not have this virus under control. A new article on Tempo elaborated on how business travels for government officials will be restarted soon. The reason? To make sure that the flag carrier airline stayed out of the bankruptcy, despite getting stimulus, underscoring just how much the government valued profits over the safety of the people.

Lord Farquaad, the main antagonist in the masterpiece cartoon “Shrek” once said during a contest to choose which knight will go in his stead to rescue Princess Fiona from the dragon, “Some of you may die, and that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.” This encapsulates perfectly the policies of both the governments of Indonesia and the United States, to certain degrees.

The truth is the solution to curb COVID-19 spreading and to reduce the number of deaths is simple: make sure people feel safe and comfortable quarantining. And how do you do that? Make sure their economic and healthcare needs are taken care of. Which means provide a universal basic income and provide universal healthcare, enact a rent/mortgage holiday and cover the payrolls of small businesses so they are not forced into bankruptcy and fire their workers. And provide masks for everyone.

Coincidentally, these are the policies that countries such as Germany, Norway, Canada and New Zealand are taking to handle this pandemic, and they are greatly reducing the case numbers in their countries, in contrast to Indonesia and the United States. We have more than enough resources to go around to enact these policies. What is the point in having a country if you can’t take care of your own people? One can only shudder!!

*) PhD candidate
Department of Biological Chemistry
School of Medicine, the University of California, Irvine, CA,
USA
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