Cuando el coronavirus se expandía en silencio por Estados Unidos a inicios del año, el constante crecimiento económico del país y un desempleo mínimo eran dos cartas clave en la campaña de reelección del presidente Donald Trump, que firmaba un ansiado acuerdo comercial con China.
Pero aquel panorama varió de forma radical con la pandemia de covid-19 y su efecto devastador en EE.UU., que el miércoles pasó la barrera simbólica de 100.000 muertos por el virus, según el conteo de la Universidad Johns Hopkins.
Se trata de un saldo que ningún otro país ha registrado por el coronavirus hasta ahora, superior también al de otros episodios mortales que marcaron la política doméstica y exterior de EE.UU. en la historia reciente.
Incluso la combinación de estadounidenses muertos en las guerras de Vietnam y Corea, los atentados del 11 de septiembre de 2001 en Nueva York y Washington, y el huracán Katrina de 2005 ya es superada por el número de fallecidos de covid-19 en el país.
El virus y las medidas para enfrentarlo han modificado, al menos temporalmente, el ritmo de grandes ciudades estadounidenses como Nueva York, epicentro de las infecciones en el país y donde siguen cerrados restaurantes, bares, teatros, cines y otros comercios no esenciales.
Y, así como la pandemia alteró hábitos y costumbres sociales, también transformó el escenario económico, electoral y de relaciones exteriores de la nación más rica y poderosa del planeta.
Aquí van tres de esos cambios drásticos.
- Colapso económico, disparada del desempleo
El coronavirus forzó un giro de 180 grados para la economía estadounidense y en particular para su panorama laboral.
A comienzos de 2020, EE.UU. pasaba por su ciclo de expansión económica más largo bajo registro: 128 meses hasta febrero.
Y ese mismo mes la tasa de desempleo del país estaba en su nivel más bajo en medio siglo: 3,5%.
Entonces estalló la pandemia, los estadounidenses debieron quedarse en sus casas para detener la propagación del virus y la economía de EE.UU. se encogió 4,8% en el primer trimestre del año.
Más aún, los economistas prevén que en el segundo trimestre de 2020, que está en curso, el PIB estadounidense mostrará un declive cercano a 30%, el peor desde la Gran Depresión de 1929.
La tasa de desempleo en el país se disparó a 14,7% en abril y sigue en aumento, según expertos, con más de 40 millones de personas que han pedido subsidio de desempleo desde mediados de marzo, de acuerdo a cifras oficiales divulgadas este jueves.
“Este momento es único, dada la parada repentina de todo tipo de actividad económica. Por lo general, las crisis económicas comienzan en el sistema financiero y se expanden a otras partes de la economía. Esta vez sufrieron todos los sectores de la economía y en especial el de servicios, que es una gran parte de la economía estadounidense”, señala Jonathan Levy, un experto de la Universidad de Chicago en historia económica.
Agrega que en comparación con otros países, EE.UU. tiene la ventaja estructural de que el dólar sea la moneda buscada en momentos de crisis.
Pero advierte que la situación sanitaria juega en contra de la potencia americana respecto a otras naciones: “En muchos aspectos, si no todos, EE.UU. está peor y eso tiene un impacto terrible en la actividad económica general”, dice Levy a BBC Mundo.
Ahora que la actividad comienza a reabrirse, la pregunta que se plantean los expertos es cuánto demorará en recuperarse la economía estadounidense.
La respuesta depende de factores aún inciertos como el tiempo que el virus siga presente, si habrá una segunda ola de infecciones, si la población se inmunizará por contagio o por una nueva vacuna, o cuán eficaz sea el gobierno en aliviar tanto la crisis sanitaria como económica.
Pero incluso asesores de la Casa Blanca admiten que es posible que la tasa de desempleo continúe en dos dígitos hasta noviembre.
- Nuevo escenario electoral
Justo antes de la crisis de coronavirus en EE.UU., Trump parecía tener su campaña bien encaminada hacia las elecciones de noviembre, cuando buscará su reelección.
A la situación económica y de empleo favorable para el presidente se sumaba la absolución de Trump en el juicio político que enfrentaba en el Senado por abuso de poder a comienzos de febrero.
Pero el covid-19 no sólo destruyó los índices económicos que el presidente mostraba como grandes logros de su gestión.
También levantó una oleada de críticas a Trump por su respuesta tardía y errática a la crisis sanitaria, aunque expertos del gobierno habían advertido que una pandemia supondría una amenaza seria para el país.
Cuando el covid-19 ya se propagaba por EE.UU., Trump auguró a fines de febrero que el virus iba a desaparecer como por “milagro”.
Y luego descartó que su país pudiera llegar al trágico récord que alcanzó ahora: “parece que nos dirigimos a un número (de muertes) sustancialmente inferior a 100.000”, dijo el 10 de abril.
Todo esto le ha dado munición gruesa a la oposición demócrata, que ahora tiene al ex vicepresidente Joe Biden como presunto candidato y al frente de Trump en algunas encuestas.
Así, EE.UU. se encamina a una elección muy distinta a las que suele realizar.
“De alguna manera, esta pandemia cambió drásticamente la campaña, ya que (…) los candidatos no están viajando por el país, no están organizando manifestaciones y es posible que ni siquiera puedan celebrar convenciones de nominación”, dice Alan Abramowitz, un politólogo en la Universidad Emory autor de libros sobre elecciones en EE.UU. y el ascenso de Trump.
Añade que, a diferencia de lo que pasó en otros países durante la pandemia, el presidente no logró una mejora sostenida en sus índices de aprobación en EE.UU., que están por debajo del 50% como antes de la crisis.
“(Trump) no está ganando terreno, no está expandiendo su coalición y puede estar alienando algunas partes de ella, particularmente a los votantes mayores”, dice Abramowitz a BBC Mundo. “Está algo más débil”.
Sin embargo, aclara que todo esto está lejos de asegurar un triunfo para los demócratas.
“Sigue siendo una elección cerrada y todavía incierta”, subraya. “(Trump) tiene tiempo para recuperarse”.
- Enfrentamiento con China
La pandemia también ha elevado la tensión entre EE.UU. y China a su mayor nivel desde que ambos países normalizaron relaciones cuatro décadas atrás, señalan expertos.
A medida que crecieron las críticas por su propio manejo de la crisis sanitaria en EE.UU., Trump ha acusado a China de falta de contención del brote que surgió en el país asiático a fines de 2019.
Estrategas del Partido Republicano de Trump estiman que esto puede favorecer las posibilidades de reelección del presidente, ya que los estadounidenses ven a China de forma cada vez más negativa según encuestas.
Pero también han surgido advertencias de que la fricción entre las dos mayores economías del mundo puede trae riesgos.
“El propósito de EE.UU. en este momento es usar incluso esta crisis para crear una nueva Guerra Fría intencionalmente”, dijo el economista estadounidense Jeffrey Sachs en una reciente entrevista con BBC Mundo. “Lo encuentro peligroso y ridículo, pero especialmente peligroso”.
China tampoco se ha quedado quieta y acusó a EE.UU. de promover “conspiraciones y mentiras” sobre el virus.
La decisión del presidente chino, Xi Jinping, de impulsar en medio de la crisis una ley de seguridad nacional que incluya a Hong Kong marcó otro foco de tensión con Washington en los últimos días.
Algunos expertos creen que la pandemia ha acelerado la competencia que EE.UU. y China ya tenían en áreas como el comercio, la tecnología y la capacidad militar.
En cualquier caso, el encono actual entre ambas potencias contrasta como el día y la noche con los augurios de una nueva relación bilateral que se hicieron al pactar una tregua a su guerra comercial en enero, justo cuando el virus daba la vuelta al mundo.
BBC News Mundo, Nueva York
Coronavirus: From ‘We’ve shut it down’ to 100,000 US dead
It’s an uncanny and almost tragically perfect piece of symmetry.
The number of US servicemen and women killed in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan – over an aggregate 44 years of fighting – is almost exactly the same as the number of Americans who’ve now lost their lives to coronavirus in just three months of America’s war against the hidden enemy, as Donald Trump likes to refer to Covid-19.
He also calls it the Chinese virus, but we’ll come to that.
Now I know you could replace the Covid-19 deaths with US cancer deaths or road crash victims and come up with similarly stark or perhaps even more dramatic statistics. But sadly, fatal car accidents and terminal tumours have always been with us. A global pandemic has not. And out of nowhere 100,000 American families are this spring mourning loved ones, whose lives have been cut short by this virus. 1.5m Americans have been infected. Many millions more have lost their jobs.
One of Donald Trump’s first acts when he moved into the Oval Office in 2017, was to restore to a central position the bust of Winston Churchill that Barack Obama had moved out in favour of a bronze of Martin Luther King Jr.
And in this fight against coronavirus, Donald Trump does see himself as a war leader; the property tycoon who could work a shovel on a Manhattan building site was also going to be shown to be a man of destiny – the untried field-marshal, with a baton in his knapsack ready to command the troops to get the job done. But also keeping the home fires burning, and lifting the morale of a frightened nation. It has all been far more jagged than that.
Donald Trump is not imbued with the gift of soaring Churchillian rhetoric; there have been no “we shall fight them on the beaches” moments. Nor has he conjured the Rooseveltian calm when delivering one of his fireside chats. There have been days of infamy, but they have been invariably generated by things that the president has said, rather than what has been done to the United States.
And anyway, for a self-styled war leader he must at least face the charge of ignoring the warnings about the enemy he was confronting in the early stages, appearing more Neville Chamberlain than Winston Churchill.
US deaths in conflict:
Korean War (1950-1953): 36,500
Vietnam War (1961-1975): 58,000
Iraq War (2003-2011): 4,500
Afghanistan (2001-today): 2,000
Covid-19 (Feb 2020- today): 100,000
The initial period of the US effort against the virus was marked by one significant action in late January, when the president stopped non-American visitors from China entering the United States. That was smart and decisive (although some have argued, to my mind unfairly, that Trump should have stopped anyone and everyone coming from China). But any tactical advantage that had given the administration was squandered in February where there was a month of inaction and incompetence.
Attempts to roll out testing were woeful (the president was badly let down by the Centers for Disease Control). Procurement of PPE was weak. The federal emergency stockpile of vital equipment was like Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard: bare. The president had also disbanded the entire global-health-security unit of the National Security Council. He also eliminated the US government’s $30m (£23m) Complex Crises Fund. These were decisions that badly undermined the American ability to counter the disease.
All while he was on a determined mission to tell America that this thing from China was no biggie, and certainly was not going to upend the economy – the centrepiece of his strategy for re-election in November.
It is worth just going through the president’s quotes from these critical few weeks.
Jan 22: “It’s one person coming in from China and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
Feb 2: “We pretty much shut it down coming in from China.”
Feb 10: “Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away. I hope that’s true. But we’re doing great in our country. China, I spoke with President Xi, and they’re working very, very hard. And I think it’s going to all work out fine.”
Feb 11: “In our country, we only have, basically, 12 cases and most of those people are recovering and some cases fully recovered. So it’s actually less.”
Feb 24: “The coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC and World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock market starting to look very good to me!”
Feb 26: “When you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”
Crisis? What crisis?
But in March the contours became clearer, and it was not pretty. The news was all grim. Because of a lack of testing, there had been extensive community transmission – people were coming down with coronavirus, but it wasn’t clear where they’d contracted it, who they’d caught it from, how they’d got it. The “track and trace” (the language of coronavirus that we’ve all now become so familiar with) was now impossible.
Although the first reported outbreak was out on the West Coast in Washington state, Covid-19 was playing a mean sleight of hand on us all. This pesky virus got us to look in one direction, when we really should have been focused on the other. Where Covid-19 was really letting rip was on the East Coast, especially in the biggest, richest and most densely populated city in the US, New York, with devastating consequences.
If the city was quickly to become the most worrying centre of the outbreak, the borough of Queens became the epicentre of the epicentre – the district where Donald Trump had grown up. And the visuals from there drove home to Americans – and to the president – the scale of the unfolding disaster. At Elmhurst Hospital, refrigerated container lorries were parked to store bodies that the morgue had no way of dealing with. I interviewed a young doctor from there at the height of the pandemic who painted a harrowing picture of daily life and death.
In the richest city of the wealthiest country on the planet, we saw nurses heading into intensive care units to treat Covid patients wearing bin liners as PPE, because that is all they had. We saw the ER consultant putting on his ski goggles to examine a patient, because the hospital didn’t have the right face masks. We saw mass graves being dug on a small island in the Bronx to accommodate all those who’d died with no next of kin, or with no money for a funeral. Like the inscription on the tomb of the unknown soldiers in the Commonwealth war graves: “known unto God”.
America, this all-mighty superpower, with enough weaponry to blow the planet to smithereens many times over, was looking ragged and not in control of events in its own backyard. It’s hard to see this chapter of America’s story going down as another moment of this nation’s greatness.
If Queens is where Donald Trump grew up, Manhattan is where he made his money – and nothing says money like Wall Street, the pulse and oxygen monitor of the US economy. And the president likes to stand over its bed to take its vitals hourly. But as it became clear that the US economy was going to have to shut down, so the Dow Jones index went diving downwards – vertiginous drops, causing circuit-breakers to kick in, and causing the president and his advisers to fret that his whole re-election strategy had gone up in flames.
But then the precipitous falls would be followed by dizzying rises as word came from Capitol Hill that lawmakers might be close to some agreement to inject gazillions into the cryogenically frozen economy.
More than 25,000 of the deaths have come from New York state, and Governor Andrew Cuomo became coronavirus’s first political superstar. His daily factual and highly detailed presentation of what was happening, where it was happening, what was being done to mitigate, and what still needed to be done, became appointment-to-view television across the US. Cometh the hour and all that.
This lifelong Democrat – who also grew up in Queens – was drawing admiring glances from a lot of Republicans, and with many Democrats quietly thinking: “I wish he was our candidate for president in November, and not Joe Biden.” Like an old-fashioned newspaper, he delineated clearly what was fact and what was opinion. In the space of 45 highly polished minutes he would deliver the news stories of New York’s descent into the abyss, and then give you his op-ed column. He admitted his response wasn’t perfect, acknowledging he could have acted earlier. And he also gave praise to Donald Trump where he thought it was due; he tweaked the tail of the administration when he thought it needed a bit of a kicking.
At around the same time as Cuomo was capturing the nation’s attention, Donald Trump decided he would go daily with a White House briefing too. It is hard to overstate how much Donald Trump loves – and needs – the roar of the crowd. Governing is dull. Campaigning – and the adoration from his rallies – is what gives him energy. It’s what gets his heart pumping and the blood circulating.
And because of the lockdown, here was a president who was deprived of the two things he yearns for most – a day out playing golf, and an evening rally addressing raucous, loving crowds. There were also no heads of states visiting him, where the cameras would record his thoughts on whatever was the subject du jour. He was being starved of the oxygen of publicity, and so daily to the briefing room he would come, with us reporters playing the most unlikely role as his ventilator. Being intubated to a bunch of journalists he’s never trusted was never going to end well.
Vice President Mike Pence had been given the task of heading the coronavirus taskforce. A poisoned chalice it may have been, but it’s a task he’s performed with aplomb. He is across the detail of everything, and was the perfect link person between the different branches of government and the White House; between the different branches of government and the governors of the 50 states. And two other things he did with considerable deftness. He never forgot to praise the president to the hilt, saluting him for his leadership. Woe betide you if you don’t. And he never forgets to display empathy – talking about the suffering of the American people, expressing condolences to those who’d lost loved ones. That is something that came easily to Mr Pence and is something Donald Trump hardly ever does.
Though there would be a revolving cast of characters in the briefing room – the two other stalwarts were Dr Anthony Fauci, the independent-minded head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr Deborah Birx, who used to head the fight against Aids for the Obama administration, and was made the coronavirus response co-ordinator. These were the scientists who wanted to ensure that the judgements the president made were evidence based. They had limited success.
No sooner had the US economy gone into shutdown than other, more business-minded voices were in Donald Trump’s other ear telling him that the remedy his doctors were prescribing was worse than the disease. Let people go back to work. Reopen the economy. The loss of jobs, the recession, depression, the devastation of the US economy will be worse than the death toll. And you could see where the president’s sympathies lay. First he advocated that the US should reopen by Easter, with churches packed. Only to have that kyboshed by doctors Birx and Fauci. When asked about this Dr Fauci gave an object lesson in disagreeing with the president without disagreeing: “You don’t set the timeline, the virus does,” he told reporters. Masterful.
But the impetus to reopen became overwhelming. The jobless totals were soaring, and Donald Trump saw his “strong economy” election strategy disappearing down the plug-hole.
And all the while the death toll was mounting, ever, ever higher. What started as a trickle at the end of February became a gradual flow. The gradual flow then became a steady stream. And by late April the stream became a torrent.
Coronavirus was indiscriminating about who it infected, but selective with who it killed. The statistics were striking – if you were black or Latino you were much more likely to die. Longstanding health inequalities came to the fore. If you’d grown up in an impoverished background, you were more likely to have the pre-existing conditions – the co-morbidities, as they say in the US – that would prove so deadly with coronavirus: hypertension, diabetes, obesity, heart disease. And if you live in densely packed, multi-generational households, and work in factories or meat-packing plants where social distancing is impossible, then – surprise, surprise – you’re more likely to contract the disease.
The US Surgeon General, Admiral Jerome Adams – himself African American – addressed this directly, and spoke powerfully about it. But he seemed to pay a price for doing so – he was not seen again at another White House news conference. Someone must have taken exception to what he said.
The president’s own erratic performances at these briefings were coming to be seen as counterproductive by Republican strategists. The president’s poll numbers were going down. I was at a couple of the most extraordinary briefings. There was the one where the president made it all about himself. His staff had produced a lengthy campaign style video detailing how brilliantly he’d handled the outbreak – for the first 45 minutes of this over two-hour-long news conference, Donald Trump spoke about himself. He spoke about how unfair the media was to him. It was “poor me”. Not once in those first 45 minutes did he talk about those who’d died, nor about those who’d been infected. Nor about the millions who were fretting about how they were going to pay the bills having lost their jobs.
I was also at the briefing where the president spoke about injecting disinfectant to treat coronavirus. Dr Birx, who was sitting at the side of the briefing room, looked like she was in some kind of gastric agony as she listened to the president, but never felt she had the space to stand up and say: “This is dangerous nonsense.” His performance was lampooned and ridiculed.
But as the criticism piled up against the president, so Donald Trump bristled.
And there were two culprits who’d be forced onto the perp walk of shame. The first was China. Despite his early praise for President Xi, China was now in Donald Trump’s cross-hairs. China had lied and covered up. This was the Wuhan flu, the city where the outbreak originated. The Chinese had taken actions to protect themselves, but not anyone else. Worse still in Donald Trump’s eyes, China had intimidated the World Health Organization, and its weak, pusillanimous leadership had allowed itself to be cowed by Beijing, and therefore had failed to warn the world sufficiently of the dangers that this new strain of virus presented. In this, sure, there was blame shifting – but President Trump had a point, both about shortcomings of the WHO, and the candour of the Chinese leadership.
All of this fired up the Trump base, but it was as nothing compared with the president shifting firmly in favour of reopening the US economy. Wild demonstrations sprang up – particularly in Democrat-run states, which the president did nothing to tamp down. In California, surfer dudes, backed by libertarian Republicans and small business owners, protested at beachside locations in a bizarre Baywatch meets the Tea Party moment. In Michigan, heavily armed men carrying assault rifles and dressed as though they were auditioning as extras for a movie about mercenaries laid siege to the State House.
If you want the country to reopen you’re with Trump (broadly); if you’re wary about reopening too soon you’re a Dem (broadly). If you love the fact that the president has ignored the advice of the Food and Drug Administration over the dangers of hydroxychloroquine, and decided to take it anyway, then you are firmly in his camp.
And although the president has publicly stated that everyone ought to wear a mask, the fact that he chooses not to is taken as a clear dog-whistle to his supporters that you really don’t have to. In the face – so to speak – of all medical advice, the mask is being seen by some as an act of provocation, a symbol of the nanny state.
Shopkeepers who insist that customers wear a mask are being intimidated by thuggish gangs patrolling outside their premises. It is grotesque. They are being ripped up and destroyed as though a symbol of oppression by the “Deep State”, rather than a small effort to halt the spread of the disease. Our film crews have been jostled and abused for wearing face masks while filming these protesters. Needless to say, these people are no respecters of social distancing. BBCNEWS