Capitalism Versus Coronavirus

Economist Jeffrey Sachs joins Mehdi Hasan to discuss the Trump administration’s incoherent response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images

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From just a handful of cases a few weeks ago, the Covid-19 outbreak in the U.S. has ballooned to over 1,000 cases nationwide. The Trump administration’s public response has ranged from incoherent to incomprehensible: denialism about the scale of the problem, failure to test in sufficient numbers, a reluctance to take coordinated, large-scale government action. It’s also raised questions about the U.S. health care system’s capacity to respond effectively to a health crisis on this scale. Columbia professor and economist Jeffrey Sachs joins Mehdi Hasan to discuss American capitalism’s failure to deal effectively with the coronavirus.

Jeffrey Sachs: With this pandemic, this government has to be judged on its incompetence, its venality, its ignorance and it will add to our costs and our dangers absolutely in an enormously depressing and significant way.

[Music interlude.]

Mehdi Hasan: Welcome to Deconstructed, I’m Mehdi Hasan. We’re in the midst of a corona crisis, and we have a president who can’t or won’t lead and an economic system that’s just not fit for purpose:

JS: When this pandemic started our secretary of health and human services was talking about how the private markets would organize the response. Unbelievable.

MH: That’s my guest, the world-famous economist and author Professor Jeffrey Sachs. So, on today’s Deconstructed, it’s capitalism versus the coronavirus.

Newscaster: Two hundred and fifty-four people die from coronavirus in China on the deadliest day of the outbreak so far.

Newscaster: If millions of people contract the coronavirus, the death toll could still run into the hundreds of thousands.

Newscaster: The coronavirus outbreak is worse than any terror attack.

Newscaster: The terror of the virus is increasing every moment.

Newscaster: Some people are predicting the apocalypse.

MH: It is difficult to describe, summarize, or express with sufficient outrage the many myriad ways in which the Trump administration has screwed up beyond belief in response to the coronavirus pandemic – as the World Health Organization officially classified it on Wednesday.

Remember: lots of countries are dealing with the political, economic, public health fallout from this virus, but none have handled it as badly as the United States, as the Trump administration. The denialism about the scale of the problem, the failure to test in anywhere near sufficient numbers, even now; the earlier refusal by this president to allow Americans back onto American soil simply because he didn’t want the numbers to go up and make him look bad:

Donald J. Trump: I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship. If they want to take them off, take them off. But if that happens all of a sudden your 240 is obviously gonna be a much higher and probably the 11 will be a higher number.

MH: According to stats collected by Business Insider, as of March 8th, the US had a testing rate of 5 tests per million people. That compares to 347 tests per million in the UK. And three and a half thousand tests per million people in South Korea. More than three and a half thousand! The South Koreans are even testing people at drive-thrus, drive-thrus! How on earth did the United States of America allow any other country beat them at drive-thrus? I mean, seriously.

But look, it turns out, putting a former reality TV star, a thin-skinned narcissist and egomaniac, in charge of the United States government, and then surrounding him with anti-government extremists, isn’t the best move when the country they’re supposed to be governing gets hit by a public health crisis like one we’ve never seen before in our lifetimes.

People are dying. The virus is spreading. Public health professionals are sounding the alarm bell, because it’s going to get worse, much worse, and this is the response from the president of the United States:

DJT: Now, the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus, you know that right? Coronavirus. One of my people came up to me and said Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia. That didn’t work out too well. They tried the impeachment hoax. It’s all turning, they lost. It’s all turning, think of it and this is their new hoax.

MH: But, look, Trump knows what he is doing. Remember, remember what he said in his visit to the CDC:

DJT: You know my uncle, he was a great person. He was at MIT. He taught at MIT for I think a record number of years. He was a great super-genius, Dr. John Trump. I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Everyone of these doctors said how do you know so much about this? Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should’ve done that instead of running for president.

MH: This is the guy who’s in charge, who our lives depend upon! Well, actually he’s put Mike Pence in charge, which isn’t much better, given Pence is a spineless sycophant whose priority is pleasing the Dear Leader not protecting public health, and Pence is also an anti-science extremist who thinks smoking doesn’t cause cancer and carbon emissions don’t cause climate change.

By the way, what’s been so depressing is seeing government officials, including respected scientists like the head of the CDC, Dr. Robert Redfield, slathering praise on Trump and trying to keep him happy, rather than speak truth to power and convey the urgency of this problem and the fact that the United States is way way behind where it should be. Here’s Redfield welcoming Trump to the CDC:

Robert Redfield: Well, I think first I want to thank you for your decisive leadership in helping us you know, put public health first. I also want to thank you for coming here today and sort of encouraging and bringing energy to the men and women that you see that work every day to try to keep America safe. So I think that’s the most important thing I want to say.

MH: Ugh. I think I feel my breakfast coming up. One good thing though that Redfield did say, this week:

RR: The truth is, we’ve not invested, we’ve under-invested in the public health lab —

Congressperson: There aren’t enough people to run the tests?

RR: There’s not enough equipment. There’s not enough people. There’s not enough internal capacity. There’s no surge capacity.

MH: Yes, U.S. governments, whether Democratic or Republican, but especially Republican, have under-invested in public health, in public infrastructure, in R&D and scientific discovery.

And that’s what I want to talk about on the show today. Because the coronavirus is really highlighting, showing up, the deficiencies in capitalism, it really is. Especially the U.S. economy, the U.S. hardcore capitalist model, which is just not geared for a crisis like this: I mean, not just in terms of scientific research, but also: guess what? It turns out that not having universal healthcare, not having federally-guaranteed paid sick leave for workers, and allowing Big Pharma to lead the way on vaccines and the pricing of vaccines, isn’t the best move when you’re confronted with a pandemic like the coronavirus which requires people to be able to get tested quickly, which requires people to self-quarantine and stay home from work when they suspect they might have it, which requires everyone to get vaccinated eventually, in order to stop the spread.

There’s a great piece in The Atlantic this week by staff writer Peter Nicholas, headlined “There Are No Libertarians in an Epidemic,” which is well worth your time. Peter writes, and I quote: “Donald Trump’s aim is to brand his opponent an avatar of socialism, whether it’s Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders. But the COVID-19 outbreak demonstrates the emptiness of these sorts of ideological labels. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, in a national emergency, there’s no truly laissez-faire government.” Oh. Yes. Totally agree.

Another good piece on this subject over at the CNN website that’s worth reading, specifically on the need for a “public health approach” not a private sector-led approach, to tackling the virus and producing a vaccine, is by Jeffrey Sachs, professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, who is also a former adviser to Bernie Sanders and a former adviser on poverty and development to the United Nations Secretary General. Its headline, his piece’s headline is “The Trump administration’s ludicrous approach to the coronavirus vaccine.”

And I’m pleased to say that Professor Jeffrey Sachs joins me now.

Jeffrey Sachs, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.

JS: Good to be with you.

MH: Jeff, there’s been a lot of talk about the public health implications of this pandemic, as the WHO now calls the coronavirus. There’s also been a lot of talk about the implications for the stock market, for the economy. I want to take a step back with you and ask a bigger question about whether or not there’s something about capitalism, and specifically, the American neoliberal model of capitalism which makes this country and this economy, particularly ill-suited, and ill-equipped to deal with a health crisis like this.

JS: We don’t have a public health system. We have a for-profit, private system. We have tens of millions of people that have no health coverage. We have people that have no primary care physicians. We have no systematic testing. We are scrambling, and it has been weeks with this virus multiplying, with the pandemic spreading in the United States. And effectively so far with essentially zero response by the government. Yeah, we’re just way, way behind. And it reflects the institutions and the mindset because even when this pandemic started, our Secretary of Health and Human Services was talking about how the private markets would organize the response. Unbelievable.

MH: Yes, and I do want to come back to Alex Azar in a moment, just you mentioned the kind of lack of coverage which is, of course, where the mind goes first. How much is a glaring lack of universal health care in the US going to further exacerbate this crisis especially compared to other countries which are also dealing with the coronavirus? I’m from the UK which has a national health service, but they don’t have this problem that the US especially has.

JS: I was just speaking with somebody who was saying that they could not get information from their state public health officials. They were told to go to primary care doctors that they don’t have, there is no testing being done. This is of course an anecdote, but it’s what we’re hearing from all over the United States right now. I’m hearing from doctors in hospitals without the facilities, without the testing kits, without the advice from public health officials. It’s rather shocking.

MH: Just this week, the Vice President refused to take questions at the White House about whether the uninsured would have access to the vaccine if and when a vaccine is produced, which is pretty shocking as you say and shoddy. What’s also amazing and this is not really the show or the discussion to get deep into party politics, but it is worth noting that at a time when everyone realizes the dire implications of not having access to healthcare or not being able to pay for health care, the presidential candidate who you’ve advised and who’s, who’s advocating universal single payer health care is losing not winning in elections which says a lot about the political culture in this country.

JS: It is odd because an overwhelming proportion of Americans want universal health coverage, survey after survey shows this. We have a very peculiar politics in this country.

MH: So Jeff, what do you do about a political, economic, social culture that as you’ve seen over the decades, kind of arguing about this stuff, studying this stuff, that seems in part so viscerally anti-government, so anti-the public sector, anti-the public realm. It’s all about free markets, all about sturdy individualism, and then a crisis like this hits.

JS: Of course, that’s not really the public’s attitude. This is the lobbying speaking. This is the plutocracy. The public wants something different, but they can’t find it. And then when you have a candidate like Bernie Sanders who presents rather straightforwardly the right approach, the entire mainstream media is aghast, is shocked and does nothing but denigrate those policy recommendations. So we are deeply confused. In the United States, our system has been failing for, I would say 40 years because it really started with Ronald Reagan as president. It’s not just shocking to watch politically but it is at the point of grave danger for the American people.

MH: I think the word you use it stood out there was confused because there is a lot of confusion among you know, people in the media and in politics, who on the one hand, as you say, they will batter a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren even for talking about universal health care or single payer. How will you pay for it? Why do we need it? And then those are the same people who are also demanding the Trump administration do something now that you know, the government should step in and do something and they don’t see the kind of the contradiction there.

JS: It was like the famous sign a few years ago, “Government, keep your hands off of my Medicare.”

MH: Yes, during the Tea Party era. I want to come back to Tea Party in a moment. Peter Nicholas, who’s a staff writer at The Atlantic wrote a rather good piece this week, under the rather apt headline, “There are no libertarians in an epidemic,” talking about the ideological corner that Republicans have backed themselves into by always denouncing government interventions of any kind as socialism, as communism, as Marxism. Now you have a Trump administration which has to basically lead some form of large scale government action to prevent this getting worse. How are they going to thread that needle? Do you think they’re even going to bother?

JS: I think it’s also like Bernie Sanders always says, there is definitely socialism for the rich. I recall just in a different episode, in September 2008 when the financial crisis brought to us by our friendly Wall Street banks, led to a massive financial debacle, there was the Wall Street Journal saying, “Oh, we have to remember market failures. This is the time for a bailout.” So there’s —

MH: And now we’re talking about a bailout for the hotel industry for the aviation industry. Trump is very happy to bail out his friends in those big companies.

JS: He actually talked about if you really want to get your head spinning, talked about bailing out the fracking industry, the fracking, fracking industry.

MH: Top of the list of what you think of when you think of a public health crisis.

JS: That’s it.

MH: You made a good point about, you know, the mindset. You can’t make this stuff up. The Republicans are asked, what are you going to do about this crisis? And their response is tax cuts which is their response to everything. They’ve been pitching this idea, this week of 700 billion dollars of payroll tax cuts. As an economist by training, what’s your response to that?

JS: Well, it’s so absurd that maybe it will open eyes that this whole idea, by the way, both parties I have to say, of stimulus tax cuts, turning dials when we have deep structural crises, like a pandemic, like climate change, meaning that it’s not a matter of gimmicks. It’s not a matter of aggregate demand to use the jargon of macro-economists. It’s focusing on stopping a pathogen from spreading. It’s saving lives. It is taking public health measures. And similarly, on climate change or other grave crises that we face. It’s not a matter of a stimulus bill or boosting the economy. It’s a matter of focusing on solutions, making the spending and investments directed toward the specific problems or the regulations directed toward the specific problems. We haven’t been doing that for a long, long time.

MH: And what’s interesting, of course, is when they do pitch these kind of tax cuts, no one asks how are you going to pay for that? We spent the last year asking various Democratic presidential candidates how they’re going to pay for their various policies. But you know, crisis hits, Republicans call for unfunded tax cuts. You talk about solutions, a rather extreme solution, I think it’s fair to say, pitched by Rick Santelli, the stock trader, rather odious CNBC commentator, the guy who launched the Tea Party back in 2009 by blaming the quote losers who couldn’t pay their mortgage bills. He said last week that instead of quarantines…

Rick Santelli: Maybe we’d be just better off if we gave it to everybody and then in a month, it would be over because the mortality rate of this probably isn’t going to be any different if we did it that way than the long term picture. But the difference is we’re really wreaking havoc on global and domestic economies.

JS: There are some things that don’t even deserve a response, frankly.

MH: Sociopathic.

JS: Well, the idiocy of so much of our daily life right now, of course, with a psychopathic president to start has meant that the nature of our discussion is tragically sad and we go along with it. We don’t, many of us are aghast every day, but it’s tolerated as long as the stock market is booming.

MH: That is the prism that we seem to see so much of the world through in this country.

JS: Now the stock market is in a tailspin because they’re recognizing stimulus or not, interest rate cuts or not, tax cuts or not. We are in a very, very serious crisis right now. There is no easy answer to this pandemic wave.

MH: Agreed.

JS: This is the real issue.

MH: There was a headline in the New Republic magazine the other day referring to Santelli’s ridiculous comments under the headline, “The Invisible Hand wants you dead,” which might sound like left wing hyperbole, but right now it feels kind of true.

JS: I think, of course, again, it’s unpleasant to listen to people who know nothing talking about life and death issues. So it’s just unpleasant to begin with. But what is also true is given the state of affairs right now, we have a really deep, deep crisis. It’s a crisis of lives. It’s a crisis of health, and no matter what is done, it is also a crisis of the economy that’s very deep and that none of the traditional measures such as they are which don’t work very well in in any circumstance are appropriate right now.

MH: You say a crisis of life. Just on that note, I interviewed a top epidemiologist recently, who’s at Harvard, who said that the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, Prime Minister in the UK, who clearly haven’t taken this pandemic seriously, who haven’t committed the resources or attention necessary, he said they could have blood on their hands. Would you go as far as that?

JS: I believe that even Trump’s policies on climate change is a crime against humanity because it is leading to loss of lives and grave, grave damage to vast numbers of people. I believe that Trump’s sanctions on countries like Venezuela and Iran which cripple their health system and then lead to mass suffering is a crime against humanity. And, of course with this pandemic, this government has to be judged on its incompetence, its venality, its ignorance, and it will add to our costs and our dangers absolutely in an enormously depressing and significant way.

MH: Just shifting gear, but sticking with the economy, I also hear people, everyone from the Trump administration to the CDC, to Barack Obama on Twitter saying, “If you feel sick, if you think you’re infected, stay home, don’t go to work” which is easy to say if you can afford it. But in a country like the U.S. one of the only industrialized countries on earth, which doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave, a lot of people can’t afford to just stay home. So they’re going to go to work out of necessity, and then spread the virus.

JS: But even staying home requires access to medicines, to social support systems, to food deliveries, to testing —

MH: None of which has been thought through.

JS: None of that is in place because we don’t have such support systems in this country.

MH: Every man for himself, fend for yourselves.

JS: Well, this is the tragedy.

MH: In your CNN online piece headlined “The Trump administration’s ludicrous approach to coronavirus vaccine,” you discuss and you mentioned them at the top Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and his statement recently, not just about kind of let the markets do their thing. He said:

Alex Azar: Frankly, this has such global attention right now and the private market players, major pharmaceutical players, as you’ve heard, are engaged in this. The market here we believe will actually sort that out in terms of demand, purchasing, stocking, etc. We’ll work on that to make sure that we’re able to accelerate vaccines as well as therapeutic research and development.

MH: Can you translate what he’s saying? What on earth is he trying to say there?

JS: Well, it’s like a Saturday Night Live opening. You would think that it’s a spoof. I had to read that several times to believe it. What he is saying is that as usual, our government through a wonderful institution, the National Institutes of Health, will promote scientific discovery, will spend money on the vaccine as it should. But then whatever is learned will be handed over to private companies. And they will develop a vaccine and then charge what they want because that’s the American system. So he was asked in Congress, specifically, “Mr. Secretary, could you guarantee that a vaccine would be affordable?” And he said, “No, I can’t, because the market will determine the price of the vaccine.”

MH: Even in a pandemic?

JS: In a pandemic, and in a case explicitly where the research and development is being funded by the US government. It shows —

MH: Socialism for the rich as you quoted Bernie saying, and Azar of course, surprise, surprise, breaking news is a former drug industry lobbyist.

JS: This is exactly his job and is exactly his job qualification. That’s why he has this job. All across our government, Trump has put literally lobbyists, you don’t have to lobby anymore. They’re in the position itself.

MH: Drain the swamp. In your piece, you also mentioned how FDR who suffered from polio set up a publicly funded initiative to try and get a cure for polio which worked. What lessons Do you think we could draw from that today? I mean, putting aside the fact that the Trump administration has no interest in learning from FDR, but what lessons can the rest of us learn when it comes to getting ready for a potential coronavirus vaccine?

JS: Franklin Roosevelt was the greatest president in American history and also a remarkable human being and a great inspiration because of course, he had a crippling bout with polio. And in 1938, as the polio epidemic was spreading across the United States, he launched at that time, a non-governmental effort called the March of Dimes which took donations from the public and used that to fund Jonas Salk’s path breaking research which produced the polio vaccine. And as I quote in that CNN piece, when Edward R. Murrow of CBS News, asked Salk, who owns the patent on your vaccine? Salk gave a very famous, wonderful answer. He said, “Well, it would be the people. Could you patent the sun?” It was just self evident back in the early 1950s that this was a public good for an urgent public need.

MH: So given your quoting of Jonas Salk there, is it fair to say that there’s Azar who says the market should decide the price and the availability of the vaccine, there’s House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who said, well, it should be affordable and then there’s Bernie Sanders who says it should be free. You think it should be free paid for by the government for everyone?

JS: Of course, because if and when we have such a vaccine, it needs also to be implemented in a public health manner, not in a private over the counter choice of the consumers.

MH: Because we need everyone to get it. There’s no point just getting it for yourself, you need, it’s in your interest for everyone else to get it.

JS: It’s a so-called mass action effect that we want a mass immunization against pandemic diseases. So this is a collective shared necessity, not an individual choice of over the counter product. It’s unbelievable how hard it is for American politicians other than Bernie, to think in these terms because it’s been so many years that we have lost this basic idea of the public good and the idea of government for the public good, which is an absolutely fundamental and correct idea.

MH: Do you think this coronavirus panic will force, finally force some politicians at least to take a stand against price gouging and patent exploitation by Big Pharma in this country? I mean, just a few months ago, Joe Biden was praising them as “great drug companies out there except for a couple of opioid outfits.”

JS: The scandal of the drug pricing even without a pandemic is terrifying. Over and over again, what we’re now observing in this shocking way in the discussion about the coronavirus vaccine actually plays out where the federal government puts in lots of resources. Lo and behold, the intellectual property so-called becomes private property. It’s patented, there is then legally by construction, a monopoly. And then that monopolist charges 10, 100, even 1,000 times the cost of production causing mass suffering and mass loss of lives and that’s considered normal. I can give you one case which I followed closely, Gilead, one of my least favorite companies in this country markets a very effective cure against Hepatitis C. Now it bought that from another company that did all of the basic research on that. But it bought it knowing that it was going to charge an unbelievable price 1,000 times the production costs per pill. And it has gotten away with that.

MH: You’re a Sanders supporter. Given the results this week, especially in Michigan, how disappointed are you that Bernie hasn’t been able to get the turnout, the votes needed to beat Joe Biden to secure the Democratic presidential nomination this time, either, despite all the energy at his rallies, despite all the grassroots support for his policies like Medicare for All, despite all the genuine anger that is out there with the political economic system in this country, and it hasn’t translated into victory at the ballot box again.

JS: Look, if Joe Biden is the nominee, I’m going to very strongly support him, but I’m going to continue to support Bernie Sanders as a great man and a great leader and our most honest and direct politician in this country who has been calling it straight and right for decades, and whose policy positions we need to win.

MH: But why do you think he didn’t cut through? Is that something in the culture of this country that just resists what you’ve talked about in this interview, the idea of government for the greater good?

JS: Well, I think a lot of the Democratic Party itself, obviously has its hand out to the corporate sector. The mainstream media have been horrible. The New York Times and The Washington Post writing anti-Bernie pieces every day, unbelievable, and almost never actually on the policies only on his electability or the word socialist or some nonsense, you know, rather than a serious discussion which we urgently need. Bernie Sanders is a historic figure and he absolutely is making a historic change in this country. These are policies actually supported by a large majority of Americans even the Americans that are not voting for Bernie. They support the policies.

MH: That’s true.

JS: And this is why we have the chance to continue to follow Bernie to the success of his agenda, even if he doesn’t make it to the White House.

MH: And in terms of who makes it to the White House. One last question briefly, how likely do you think a Trump re-election is at this point? Will a coronavirus recession stop him?

JS: I have to believe the American people will stop him and would have stopped him even without the coronavirus. This man is absolutely a psychopath and the most incompetent and dangerous person ever to hold this office in the history of the United States. He is a danger to us every day he is in office, and we have the opportunity and the necessity to do something about it on election day.

MH: Jeffrey Sachs, thanks so much for joining me on Deconstructed.

JS: Well, great to be with you. Thanks so much.

MH: That was Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, a proud supporter of Bernie Sanders there, as you heard, he’s the author of the forthcoming book, “The Ages of Globalization” which comes out in June.

And that’s our show! Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

And I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice, iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review – it helps new people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Thanks so much!

See you next week.

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