Health officials are warning that as the COVID-19 coronavirus appears in more countries, it is becoming increasingly likely — if not certain — that we will see it spread throughout the United States. The impacts will be felt widely: on the economy, on the healthcare system, on society as a whole… and on this year’s election for the next President of the United States.
Donald Trump seems to be betting his campaign on a strong economy as his path to reelection. As the stock market has demonstrated in the past week, there are well-founded fears that COVID-19 could be the trigger for a recession both in the U.S. and globally. While the nation’s economy has continued to grow over the past year, many of its fundamentals are weak, including sagging manufacturing output, record levels of corporate and consumer debt, and an over-reliance on unsustainable government stimulus.
China has demonstrated over the past month what happens to an economy when everyone stays home, and there is no reason to believe that the United States will fare better if faced with a quickly spreading contagion. If the U.S. economy does tank in the next six months, few people outside Trump’s devoted base may have reason to throw him their votes.
Trump also needs to worry about how his administration will perform managing a pandemic — and first signs have not been good. He has personally downplayed the dangers of COVID-19, criticized and second-guessed his own health officials, and suggested that his enemies are hyping the virus to damage him politically. His administration has cut both funding and staffing at the CDC over the past three years, and eliminated the National Security Council team responsible for pandemic response.
The CDC shipped out faulty test kits to labs across the country weeks ago, and is only this week sending out a fix; currently only 8 of the 100 public labs have the ability to test for COVID-19, which means that health officials have been unable to mobilize the existing network of influenza testing apparatus to start checking for community spread of the coronavirus. Trump has now asked Congress for $2.5 billion in emergency funding, a figure which many have called much too low. In the meantime, earlier this week Trump claimed that the United States is “completely prepared.” This all could easily blow up in his face and cause him to lose the election if we become a nation in mourning, looking for someone to blame.
COVID-19 might also turn out to be the most convincing argument for universal healthcare. As with influenza, the coronavirus is harder on the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, and respiratory disease. With a fatality rate of 2% — and much higher for those in high-risk categories — if it becomes widespread then we will all know someone who became very ill or died from the disease, or whose life was saved because of prompt and effective treatment. And assuming a vaccine can be developed over the next year, we will all re-learn the value of “herd immunity” in protecting those who can’t be vaccinated. Given the popularity of various flavors of Medicare for All among Democratic candidates, they could benefit from a real-life example of the benefits of giving everyone access to healthcare.
But there’s one more scenario worth considering: what happens if candidates themselves contract the coronavirus? They are all certainly at high-risk for catching it: they are traveling widely, shaking thousands of hands. The campaign trail is physically exhausting, and several of them are in their seventies. It seems as though it will take a miracle for them to avoid it! Will we be seeing candidates in the coming weeks wearing masks and gloves as they greet supporters, or will going without be seen as a symbol of toughness, much like not wearing a coat to a January inauguration in D.C.? And there’s more to consider: what if one or more of them became seriously ill, or (God forbid) died?
Last week a research study was published that provided the first information on mortality rates for COVID-19 based on data collected from patients in China. For patients aged 60-69, the mortality rate is 3.6%; for those in their seventies, it jumps to 8%, and in their eighties it’s a whopping 14.8%. There are currently five leading presidential candidates in their seventies: Biden, Bloomberg, Sanders, Trump, and Warren. If all five of them were to contract COVID-19, there is a 34% chance that at least one of them would die from it. Add in Steyer (age 62) and Bill Weld (age 74) and the odds jump up to a 42% risk.
It’s hard to predict what the effect would be on the election. The Iranian government is certainly discovering that it doesn’t inspire confidence when several high-ranking officials catch the virus; one may assume that the Trump administration would have the same issue. Perhaps it might end up being interpreted as a sign of strength if a candidate — particularly an elderly one — recovers quickly, even if it does keep them off the campaign trail possibly for weeks.
And then there’s the really tough question: what would be the effect of a presidential candidate dying from the coronavirus during the run-up to the election? If it happened before the conventions it would be traumatic but the party machines would figure it out; after the conventions it could create chaos, especially if there isn’t time to re-print ballots. And then what happens if more than one candidate becomes very ill and/or dies?
This year’s presidential election has already been crazy, but COVID-19 could upend the whole apple cart.