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On Contact: Virus

On the show this week, Chris Hedges discusses the coronavirus with investigative journalist and author, Nina Burleigh.

“There are many ways to begin to tell the story of why more Americans died of Covid-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, than in any other nation on earth,” Nina Burleigh writes in her new book ‘Virus: Vaccinations, the CDC and the Hijacking of America's Response to the Pandemic’. “We could start at the Washington, DC hospital with doctors amputating the lower leg of the White House chief of security, a man who caught Covid in Donald Trump's mask-free domain. Or we could talk to the families of forty-six veterans who died within days of each other in a Veterans Administration nursing home in Alabama. Or we could listen in on a therapy session with some of the New York City medics struggling with PTSD after helplessly watching some of tens of thousands of people die in a matter of weeks. Since the story involves mass death, religious zealots, and the worst case of government malpractice in the history of the United States, I chose the biblical opening: ‘In the beginning, there was the State. And the ideologues said, Let it Be Smashed. And so it was smashed.’”

Nina Burleigh was the national politics correspondent for Newsweek and is the author of several books, including ‘The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox’ and ‘Golden Handcuffs: The Secret History of Trump's Women’.

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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss the coronavirus with the writer, Nina Burleigh.

Nina Burleigh: This was a traumatic thing that our grandparents would’ve been familiar with.  They either survived or they didn’t.  We don’t even know the names of those things anymore.  We can’t even pronounce it.  We can’t imagine looking at a small child coughing to death in front of our eyes, our children.  This is--this is--our generation’s been absolutely spoiled by vaccines.

CH: “There are many ways to begin to tell the story of why more Americans died of COVID-19, a disease caused by SARS COV-2 than in any other nation on Earth,” writes Nina Burleigh in her new book “Virus: Vaccinations, The CDC, and The Hijacking of America’s Response to the Pandemic.”  “We could start,” she writes, “…at the Washington DC hospital with doctors amputating the lower leg of the White House Chief of Security, a man who caught COVID in Donald Trump’s mask-free domain.  Or we could talk to the families of 46 veterans who died within days of each other in the veteran’s administration nursing home in Alabama.  Or we could listen in on a therapy session with some of the New York City medics struggling with PTSD after helplessly watching some of the tens of thousands of people die in a matter of weeks.  Since this story involves mass death, religious zealots, and the worst case of government malpractice in the history of the United States, I’ll close the biblical opening.  In the beginning, there was the state and the ideologue said let it be smashed and so it was smashed.’”  Joining me to discuss her book is Nina Burleigh, who was the National Politics Correspondent for Newsweek and is the author of several books including “The Fatal Gift of Beauty” The Trials of Amanda Knox” and “Golden Handcuffs: The Secret History of Trump’s Women.”  As I said before we begin, it’s beautifully written.  You’re a really great writer.  I want to deal with that nexus, which you talk about in the book, between these right-wing libertarians like the Koch Brothers and the Christian right--as a former divinity student, I’m going to call them Christian fascists, you write “The pillar of Trump’s political power, contrary to popular belief, was not the deplorable rabble that, inexplicably in the eyes of coastal elites and progressives, voted against their own interests on things like national healthcare and taxing the super-rich.  Trump’s true backers were crony capitalists and stone-cold Koch bro anti-government ideologues.  They were flanked by rapture-ready religious zealots.  And you said these two groups have one thing in common.  What is that?

NB: Well, they both have an interest in smashing the state.  I mean, they don’t want government interference, which what they call interference, the free marketeers, the extreme libertarians want no oversight.  Obviously we, you know, that’s been their goal, including no taxation and obviously no oversight for their industrial operations and corporate activities.  And the religious zealots, the Christo fascists, as you call them rightly I think, want no--they want no interference in their--in their private activities which, of course, involve, you know, super patriarchal abuse of women and raising children to be authoritarian-minded robots.  And so they don’t want any kind of involvement in there.  They don’t want anybody to tell them how to feed, or educate their children, or treat their women or prevent pregnancies, or medicate themselves or anything.  So those are the two, you know, they would seem not to have Koch brothers and the, you know, the super religious White Christians seem not to have too much in common, you know, if they met on the streets.  But, you know, like Donald Trump, you know, you can find--they can find common ground, and they did find common ground in somebody who neither one of those groups were originally interested in in supporting.

CH: And you write that for them, the pandemic was a gift from God.  Why?

NB: Absolutely.  The pandemic was a gift from God or whatever religious--if you’re not religious, it was a gift to the corporate libertarian heritage foundation types because it gave them an opportunity to show the world what, you know, private industry, private capital--what capitalists could do without government involvement in terms of--especially the no-bid contracts that were handed out which will probably never be revealed fully, although, you know, certain Senators have been trying to head--did try to get some of that material out, Elizabeth Warren and so on.  So those--the, you know, the no-bid contracts, the pandemic profiteering, the chaos capitalism, which Naomi Klein described so well, you know, when there is chaos, you know, in chaos, opportunity.  And they came in droves to the trough and that you could see that in the recording that was done in real time where you saw, you know, Cuomo in the middle of this horrendous wave of death begging for equipment and having to compete with other governors.  It’s all about competition.  Let’s just, you know, let the--it’s this Hobbesian universe that they--they just love this.  And, you know, so they--and Trump was right in there, you know.  No, there would be not a--no sole purchaser.  The government would not be the sole purchaser because if they were, then they would be able to--these individual companies and individuals would not have been able to treat this as they customarily do, which is to the highest bidder or, you know, the--let’s--sorry, supply and demand.  And the highest--let’s charge as, you know, what the market will bear.  Let’s treat healthcare as a market that they, you know, that’s a whole other story, Chris, which we can talk to.  So that, that was one side of it.  And then of course for the religious, well, you know, there was more state smashing going on.  And in fact, you know, the Trump administration had paid back the evangelicals for their support by putting them in charge of the public health system in a federal government.  That’s why you had Alex Azar, Tom Price, these people are evangelical Christians.  They’re not doctors.  They’re not even associated with any kind of, you know, so they--there-Azar is in charge of HHS.  He’s also the guy who’s bringing Capitol Ministries’ Ralph Drollinger into the White House for cabinet bible meetings weekly in the White House.  So that’s Alex Azar.  That’s our HHS secretary.  Birx and Redfield, they’re medical people but they cut their teeth on the AIDS--on the AIDS fight.  And the reason they were involved in AIDS fighting is that they were aligned with these homophobic organizations.  So they did work--they did genuine work in their medical people, but they are, you know, autocratically inclined, patriarchal--patriarch-loving White evangelical Christians.  That’s what their allegiance is to.  So the pandemic, well, it was--it--eventually, it exposed the shortcomings of that strategy of paying them back with these agencies because they were non-science people.  They were not, you know, non-science people were in charge of these agencies.  So not the, you know, Redfield, again, the CDC, we know they were manipulating the data.  They refuse to respond to offers by the WHO, let’s say, to help with the creation of a test.  And so those are the things that the right-wing evangelical Christians were involved with, I think.  And that is--that was a gift in a sense.  That was a gift to them.  The gift had been given to them already in terms of the public health agencies and the control over American public health.  Their eyeballs were on, you know, religious liberty issues, not having to do to sell contraceptives to women, making sure they had never--you know, that no pharmacist or medical person ever had to deal with a gay person or a transgender person.  These were the issues that they were focused on.  Their eye was on that, not on the ball of a deadly virus coming to our country, our shores, and they had no network connections with the pandemic preparedness community that existed and was sitting here in New York and all over emailing each other in those early months going “Who do we talk to in the federal government about this?”  They weren’t there.

CH: You had--I didn’t know this until I read your book, Azar’s Chief of Staff’s sole foray into science was breeding labradoodles, is that right?  Or Golden Doodles or something.  That’s just…

NB: Yes, that was--that was reported at the time and, you know, it was reported in the Wall Street Journal and indeed, it is true.  He had this attaché, 30 something buddy who was his, you know, lint brusher, door opener guy who he then put in charge of the pandemic response early on.  He didn’t stay there very long, but it just gives you an idea of the cronyism, the absolute disregard for expertise which was--which was part of this, which is what this--that administration elevated, a strain in our society right now that really diminished our ability to respond factually and scientifically to this crisis.

CH: You also point out, because of our for-profit healthcare system, that vaccines are just not profitable because they’re given once.  And so when the pandemic hit, there was just a handful of pharmaceutical firms that made vaccines and they didn’t have the capital.  It really took that infusion of government money, but just talk about that issue.  So, you know, drugs that--high-end drugs that have to be taken for chronic illnesses are mass produced but simple vaccines often aren’t.

NB: Yeah.  I mean, the other, you know, the other--of the many things that the pandemic exposed, the problems in our--in our society and in our policies, one of them has to do with the--obviously the for-profit healthcare system, which, you know, treats--I mean, these companies, these big pharmas have been stockholder profit-oriented for decades with the approval of the government of the United States.  They have lobbyists who make sure that they are allowed to get away with all of this.  And the--yes, the vaccine--the vaccine situation is, you know, it doesn’t make money to vaccinate--to make this serum because you only use it once, as you said.  And you have to vaccinate a lot of people, so you have to make a gigantic amount of it and then because of these huge numbers of people that are being vaccinated, you then have the side effect/risk that is, you know, these guys are all actuarially doing the numbers, like, we’re not making enough money and we are going to face these types of, you know, litigation issues.  So what the Trump administration did right within this context is that they threw money at these companies, at these, you know, Moderna I guess five, six companies that they threw money at and said, look, here’s your--here’s your money.  If the--if the vaccine doesn’t work, you get to keep the money.  And you’re going to be immune from litigation.  That was the right thing to do within the context of the way our society, our government policy--help their policy works.  And it did produce--it moved this vaccine.  It moved this solution forward very quickly in a way that wouldn’t have been and was not actually being pushed forward for--they knew for 15 years that they could probably make this kind of a vaccine.  But they never moved it forward.  They were--they were--these companies like Moderna were making--again, they were producing what you said, these very, very specific, high-end, extremely expensive medications for rare diseases or cancers where people would, you know, insurance companies or private individuals would have to pay a fortune every year to be treated with these medications.  And so that’s the for-profit system.  And then, of course, once, you know, rather obscenely, even though I celebrate Moderna, I celebrate what they were able to do, I think it’s, you know, one of the things the human species should be proud of that we have--we have managed to figure out how to do this because it is going to make a difference going forward, and as other viruses come out but, you know, every time they--every time they released a press release saying, you know, we’ve discovered that we have a high efficacy rate here, immediately the owners or the CEOs were selling--like literally time to the press releases, they’re selling these stocks to make money back.  So this is our for-profit system.  Does, you know, is it possible that we could have this type of research done without these oceans of money being made by small groups of people?  I believe that you could--we could imagine a world in which that’s possible.  And, you know, one hopes now…

CH: Nina, I’m just going to--I’m going to stop there.  We got--we got--we just have to take a break.  When we come back, we’ll continue our discussion about the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic, crony capitalism and chaos capitalism with the author, Nina Burleigh.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about the COVID-19 pandemic, crony capitalism, and chaos capitalism with Nina Burleigh.  So you write in the book about how the rise of the pandemic, as it did in the Black Death and all sorts of other pandemics, Ancient Rome, Medieval genoa, when the plague struck, people turned to quack and natural cures, eating catnip, skull cap, lady slipper, earthworm oil, blackberry, brandy, et cetera, et cetera, why?  What is--what is that phenomena about?

NB: Well, I mean, it--it’s--I’m--you’re quoting from--I think the quote that you’re reading is from Daniel Defoe’s book, “Journal of The Plague Year,” and that was in this, you know…

CH: Yes, which you said you read--you read before you wrote your book.

NB: I did, I--well, you know, in the--in those first months when we were all in hiding, I pulled that down, I was a graduate--I’m an--I’m an English major and that was one of the--Daniel Defoe was one of my heroes, and I pulled it down off the shelf having, you know, I remember looking at it in grad school long time, ago and rereading it and realizing how little have changed.  We have the internet, we have medicine, we have antibiotics, we have vaccinations, but human beings respond grasping at miracles and quack cures, why?  It’s--I don’t know, I mean, I guess, you know, the--look, we’ve only been able to really fight back against these infectious agents for the last 200 or 250 years.  I mean, all of human history, we were utterly helpless and we only started to be less than helpless when the Cowpox vaccine was invented around the late 1800s--18th century, and then--and then, you know, then we--then you had these men--these men, in these, you know, what I call Steampunk labs, you know, with gaslight and, you know, hardly, you know the development of the microscope and being able to see tiny things was just starting in the 1800s, and it developed into the, you know, in the 1900s--or sorry in the 1800s, they started to be able to see.  Louis Pasteur, they started to be able to see what these things were and then they were able to start to come up with a solution.  It’s an amazing story.  And then, you know, we get to now and, you know, I think people are just not caught up to the--this reality.  I mean one of the things I write about and I find so fascinating is that the way that we forget our generation and our--the, you know, our grandparents’ generation, yours and mine, I mean I assume we’re around the same age, those people, when they were born, the lifespan of a--of--the average lifespan in America was around 48 or 49 in 1900.  And, you know, and now, it’s like 78 or 80, right?  If you’re born in 2019.  Why is that?  Well--and antibiotics have to do with it, right?  And some, you know, medicine for cancers and heart disease, but the vast majority of the problem was that there were dozen--a dozen of childhood infectious diseases that killed or may--traumatized people and killed children in in front of their families.  This was a traumatic thing that our grandparents would have been familiar with.  They either survived or they didn’t.  We don’t even know the names of those things anymore.  We can’t even pronounce it.  We can’t imagine looking at a small child coughing to death in front of our eyes, our children.  This is--this is--our generation’s been absolutely spoiled by vaccines to the point where we have one in four Americans walking around going, “I don’t really need it.”  You know, it’s--or, “I don’t believe in those guys, I don’t believe in those.”  They think--they think they’re really smart, you know, but they don’t--they don’t know what they’re talking about and so we have this DIY thing going on and we have this kind of spoiled, forgot it--completely forgotten that, you know, these vaccines have really enabled our society to exist the way it does.  So I’ve gotten off the topic but ask me another question.

CH: Well--and you--and you still have these scam artists, James Bakker--Jim Bakker and others, you know, selling quack cures which people are imbibing rather than being vaccinated.

NB: Yes.  Why do people put their faith in those quack cures as opposed to the scientific--I don’t know.  I mean, it’s not just people in the--in the evangelical community who believe that God’s going to save them or prayer will keep them alive, I have friends in my community who are organic, you know, educated people who like to eat organic food and, you know, natural--the natural is better.  And as one of the people I interviewed said, you know, there’s this--there--I think she coined the term chemophobia.  “There’s like a chemophobia among people in this natural community.”  And she’s like, “But, you know, what they don’t remember is like a banana is a--it contains chemicals.”  Like--and nature--the virus is nature, like you, you know, and so it’s just a way of looking at things that, again, rejects expertise, rejects science, you know, it’s the great--I think the great kind of conflict of our era, really.  I mean, I think you agree with this, Chris, that it’s between the secular science believing communities and the people who want to be--base, you know, base their opinions on faith and, you know, the way grandpa did things was just fine.  You know, MAGA--that’s what MAGA is, “Gramp--gramps did it and I’m just going to do it the way gramps did it.”  Common sense.  You know?

CH: You write--you write in the book that, “ Trump regime’s handling of the pandemic was eugenic in effect, if not in name.”  What do you mean by that?

NB: Well, I don’t know what the statistic is today.  When I wrote the book, the vast majority--I mean, a large majority of the dead are Brown, and Black Americans, and poor.  Well, you know, they will not, you know, I mean, take the Whites--the open White supremacists out of this conversation who will be happy--who happily will say that they don’t--they want Brown people off our shores.  If you look at the politics and the aims of somebody like Robert Mercer, who I do put in the book, Robert Mercer’s the billionaire who backed Steve Bannon, our, you know, fascist revolutionary and Robert Mercer’s aim is to have zero government, and not only to have zero government but he believes--and many of these people--these--on the--on the right believe that to--for the government to give free health care or free education to the poor is to weaken the herd.  I mean, this is their, you know, this is--this is a very Nazi mentality.  I mean, they actually believe that, you know, if you didn’t get up by your own bootstraps supposedly, somebody’s giving you a handout and then you survive and you have children, well then you’re weakening the herd of Americans, and I think these people are a minute away from saying openly, you know, poor children don’t need to learn to read, like they’re just going to work at the factories, they’re serfs.  I mean, we’re minutes away from that.  In fact, a Michigan Judge has said that in a ruling about Detroit schools, you know, so that’s eugenics in effect to me.

CH: You write in the book about Trump’s decision in the midst of--in the middle of the pandemic to withdraw from the WHO.  You call it a crime against humanity.  Why?  Why did that happen?

NB: Well, I mean, Richard I’m sorry, I forget his name, The Lancet editor, Horton, is set--call--has called it a crime against humanity and I’m quoting him there.  I tend to agree, I mean to pull--look, this is a species-wide event and it’s happened before but this is the first time that we have the technology to witness in real time that it is a species-wide event, we can just open our phones and see what’s happening in India right now.  We can see people dying in India and we could see people dying in New York City, or we could see the bodies being moved by forklift out of the hospitals because so many people died in April, and that is not something that you normally would see in this country.  It’s a species-wide event.  And for these leaders of these wealthy countries and Trump, you know, number one, for them to reject the world bodies that are attempting, however feebly and however frail they might be to come up with a unified response is a crime against humanity, it’s not just a crime against humanity, it’s a crime against Americans and everybody else who wants to get past this because if you don’t get everybody out of it, you’re not going to get out of it.  Their virus--the virus is mutating in hundreds of thousands of millions of Indian people right now, that’s what happens.  It mutates, now it’s evolving into something else, it’s going to come right back here, and all these great vaccines are going to have to be updated, you know, and they’re--they--it has to be a unified response but it’s a really interesting test, Chris, because there are other things in this world that you know are very pressing that need unified responses like climate change, right?  And, you know, do we have the will?  Do we have the community spirit?  Do we understand that we’re a species, that we’re the same everywhere?  We have the same exact vulnerabilities, you know?  They--that’s to reject that and to say, well, we’re exceptional, it’s just going to come right back and haunt us, and not just in a moral sense but in an actual sense where we’re just going to keep getting sick and it’ll come right back.

CH: All right.  Great.  That was Nina Burleigh on her new book, “Virus: Vaccinations, The CDC, and The Hijacking of America’s Response to the Pandemic.”

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