COLOMBO: The absence of a state-funded or backed general healthcare system, huge expenditures on weaponry for wars which will not be fought, and neglect of new sources of threat like viruses have combined to make the American population a happy hunting ground of the novel coronavirus, reports say.

The United States, the world’s only super power in political, military and economic terms - a power which has not been humbled by any other country, has now been severely mauled and humbled by an invisible virus – the COVID-19. The novel coronavirus may have originated in Wuhan in China, but it has wrought havoc in the US, not in China.

Extent of Damage

The US now accounts for a third of the “active cases” of COVID-19 infection in the world. According to the latest figures put out by the World Health Organization (WHO), there were 1,101497 active cases in the world as a whole on Thursday April 9. Out of this, 397,472 were in the US. In contrast, China today has only 1160 active cases.

Of the 88.565 deaths due to COVID-19 in the world as a whole, the US accounts for 14797 and China 3335. The US stands at the top of the pile in terms of active and critical cases, though in terms of the number of deaths, the toll is more in Spain and Italy.

President Donald Trump is blaming China and WHO for the plight of his country. On Tuesday he accused WHO of soft pedaling the threat in the initial stages under the influence of China. Trump alleged that China had hidden from the world, the situation in Wuhan when the depredations of the virus first came to light. Trump has now threatened to cut funding for WHO to cripple the organization. WHO survives on US funding.

“We pay for a majority or the biggest portion of their money. They (WHO) actually criticized and disagreed with my travel ban at the time I did it. They were wrong. They’ve been wrong about a lot of things. They had a lot of information early and they didn’t want to —they’re very — they seem to be very China-centric,” Trump charged during a press conference.

Weak Healthcare System

But informed critics of the American system have been pointing out that the US healthcare system is not good. In an article in The Atlantic Olga Khazan has quoted the Commonwealth Fund ( which regularly ranks the health systems of a group of developed countries) to say that the best countries for healthcare are the UK, the Netherlands and Australia. The US is not among the top, even though it spends a lot.

There are a few recognizable reasons why the United States lags behind its peers in the Western world. Firstly, health insurance coverage is not up to the mark. Insurance, it is pointed out, reduces mortality. In 2016 , more than 27 million people in the US were uninsured which is nearly a tenth of the US population. This is partly because insurance is expensive. And America has no subsidized medicare system like the National Health Service in the UK.

Secondly, the US wastes a lot on administrative overheads.Time and energy are spent in billing and insurance claims. Other countries which rely on private health insurers, like the Netherlands, minimize some of these problems by standardizing basic benefit packages, which can reduce the administrative burden for providers.

Thirdly, the US system is inefficient. In 2014, the Commonwealth Fund found that “many primary-care physicians struggle to receive relevant clinical information from specialists and hospitals, complicating efforts to provide seamless, coordinated care.”

Lastly, the emphasis in the US is not on primary care. The US doesn’t invest in social services. Things like home visiting, better housing, and subsidized healthy food could improve chronic disease outcomes don’t exist there. It is because of all these factors that life expectancy has been going down in the US as compared to the 1960s, Khazan points out.

Spending On Weapons In Preference To Health

Gregory D. Koblentz and Michael Hunzeker of the George Mason University, experts in biological threats to national security, wrote in The Atlantic that the US Establishment has been consistently ignoring threats from viruses and has been spending heavily on weapon systems.

The way the Trump Administration treated the COVID-19 attack on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt which was on duty in the Pacific, is symptomatic of the mindset of the Establishment in Washington.

Narrating the sequence of events relating to the carrier, Koblentz and Hunzeker say that on March 30, with 100 confirmed cases on board, the ship’s commander, Captain Brett Crozier, had sent an urgent four-page letter to the Navy requesting emergency measures to halt the outbreak. He warned that normal shipboard operating conditions made social distancing impossible. The ship did not have appropriate quarantine and isolation facilities for sick and exposed sailors.

Crozier ultimately decided that the only way to protect his sailors’ health was to temporarily sacrifice his ship’s considerable war-fighting capabilities by pulling into port in Guam and evacuating most of the crew until the outbreak could be eradicated. In doing so, Crozier had defied the Navy Secretary Thomas Modly’s order not to put the ship to port. Modly sacked Crozier.

This raised a storm in Washington with Congressmen getting involved in favor of Crozier. Drawing heavy flak, Navy Secretary Modly had no option but to hand in his papers.

The American Establishment had forgotten that viruses could kill more Americans than weapons in war. The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic killed at least 40 million people—roughly four times as many soldiers perished in the World War raging at the time. Among the dead were 195,000 Americans.

Koblentz and Hunzeker point out that the Trump Administration was not interested in fighting threats from viruses. It raided the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s budget for working with other countries on biosecurity threats to pay for more research on hypersonic missiles. The National Nuclear Security Administration saw its budget increased by 20 percent to pay for new nuclear weapons, even as the Administration slashed the budget for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by 15 percent.

The entire 2019 federal budget for all health security-related programs was about $13.6 billion. In contrast, the Trump administration has requested almost $46 billion in funding for nuclear weapons programs in its 2021 budget proposal, the authors point out.

They quote Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg who said that the single biggest threat to humanity’s continued dominance on this planet is the virus. Biomedical research, public health preparedness, and international cooperation are the keys to global health security.

But what Trump is doing is just the opposite. He is going to cut funding for WHO and cripple the only international organization thinking and working for disease control and health across the globe.