Above photo: William Trent, a trader, land speculator and militia captain, wrote in his diary that on June 23, two Delaware emissaries had visited the fort, and asked to hold talks the next day. At that meeting, after the Native American diplomats had tried unsuccessfully to persuade the British to abandon Fort Pitt, they asked for provisions and liquor for their return. The British complied, and also gave them gifts—two blankets and a handkerchief which had come from the smallpox ward. From the Genetic Literacy Project.
There are times when President Trump’s overt race-baiting and cynical nativism are almost refreshing. And no doubt, as photos emerge showing his brazen personal edits – crossing out the word “Corona,” and substituting “China” -virus – to a recent speech, it seems The Donald has finally traded in his “dog-whistle” for a “dog-bullhorn.” Sort of reminds one of the early 1980s, when it wasn’t uncommon to refer to AIDS as “GRIDS” (Gay-related immunodeficiency) – or the “gay plague” – and the dereliction of then-President Reagan’s response, whereby he didn’t even speak publicly on the disease until 1985.
Nevertheless, unconscionable as the current president’s cynical, divisive opportunism is, it shouldn’t surprise anyone. While hardly an apology for “Trump-being-Trump,” that’s ultimately what this is; and his “liberal” opponents should (but won’t) take caution before making COVID-19 all about the current occupant of the Oval Office. Apparently, yet again, mainstream Democrats – and, to be fair, (inversely) Republicans – have heeded former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s mantra, “Never let a tragedy go to waste,” in order to score partisan political points. Both parties will come to regret it.
That’s all mildly interesting, but hardly the point of this article. Rather, at the risk of inevitable “what-aboutism” accusations (which are disingenuous in the extreme), let us consider just a bit of relevant backstory for our current Age of Corona. Specifically, while sporadic reports pop up (almost exclusively) in alt-media and scientific publications demonstrating how ongoing U.S. sanctions on “enemy” states severely amplify COVID-19 fatalities, there’s been – predictably – an almost complete absence of historical context available to the general public.
Contra common claims of my own “isolationism” – a convenient canard-cudgel to dismiss all war critics – this author remains a committed internationalist of sorts. As such, and cognizant of the demonstrable reality that this pandemic is a global-crisis requiring global-responses, it’s vital to recognize Washington’s own sordid record of epidemic-hypocrisy, of repeatedly (and continually) exacerbating disease and health crises around the world.
Even cursory analysis of America’s past policy-catalogue illuminates obvious Corona-connections to the U.S. National Security State and (particularly) its post-1945 hegemonic posture. Let us not forget that this country of ours, the United States of America, has been a pan-, or at least epidemic, facilitator and aggravator extraordinaire for decades; maybe centuries.
From their colonial origins, Americans waged varying degrees of germ-warfare on Native American peoples: consider it our original epidemiological sin. Sure, that was a long time ago, many will counter, but the dynamics of this ultimately genocidal process are instructive for today’s more modern examples. To wit, most popular takes on Indian mass-mortality vacillate between two flawed assumptions: either, A) all colonists were in on an evil conspiracy of the (occasionally literal) distribute-smallpox-blankets to the natives variety; or, B) that Indians’ supposed lack of disease immunity made pandemic inevitable, and thus the colonists were merely blameless “beneficiaries of catastrophe.”
The far more nuanced reality, as my own former graduate school Professor Paul Kelton (and several others) have shown, is that colonial and later U.S. national policies – of war, displacement, and (at times) native enslavement – inflamed and catalyzed the crisis by impeding Indians’ access to food, shelter, and medicine. Americans and natives alike possessed agency – nothing was inevitable about these pandemics.
Perhaps the best contemporary example of U.S. Government policies’ catalyzing, cascading public health effects is America’s ongoing, nearly three decades-old, isolation, strangulation, and overt war-making inflicted on the Iraqi people. Since 1990, Washington has twice invaded (and once conquered), repeatedly bombed, and long sanctioned Iraq. Innocent civilians, predictably, were the usual victims. With a specific eye to the historically stringent sanctions, the evidence of consequent humanitarian calamity is undeniable:
- In just the first seven years of the U.S.-imposed sanctions regime, Iraqi per capita income dropped from $3,510 in 1989 to $450 in 1996.
- Defense Intelligence Agency documents (DIA) uncovered in 2001, proved that the U.S. purposefully “used sanctions against Iraq to degrade the country’s water supply after the  Gulf War,” and admitted that “This could lead to increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease.”
- In total, according to a widely cited UNICEF report, economic sanctions killed more than 500,000 children by increasing the infant mortality rate.
When it came to Iraq, Washingtonian callousness, even among “polite,” so-called liberals, became all-too apparent when then-President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, let slip an instructive admission. In 1996, she responded to a question from Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes, regarding credible reports that U.S. sanctions had caused the deaths of half a million Iraqi civilians, with a chilling, succinct sentence: “I think that is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, the price is worth it.” Most Americans hardly noticed. After all, Iraqis were decidedly foreign, ethnically Arab, vaguely Muslim, and…far away.
So what of America’s own backyard?: Latin America, Cuba, and (more recently) Venezuela. It has now been nearly fifty years since a “prohibition of trade in food, medicines, and medical supplies” was added (1963) to the initial U.S. embargo on Cuba (1960), a state – warts, ideological variance, and all – that has never posed a substantial threat to this country. This was especially the case after the removal of Russian missiles (1962) from the island, Cuban realization (1963-4) that Moscow wouldn’t directly defend them from U.S. invasion, and the fall (1989-91) of the Soviet Union. After said Soviet collapse (they had provided Cuba most medical supplies it couldn’t produce), those U.S. sanctions had far more adverse effects.
According to Science Magazine, after 1989 “Adult caloric intake decreased 40%, the percentage of underweight newborns increased 23%, anemia was common among pregnant women, and the number of surgeries performed decreased 30%…and, after a decade of steady declines, Cuba’s total mortality rate increased 13%.” Per the same report from these two Stanford researchers, “Medication shortages [in Cuba] were associated with a 48% increase in tuberculosis deaths from 1992 to 1993; the number of tuberculosis cases in 1995 was threefold that in 1990.”
Across the Caribbean in Venezuela, tough U.S. sanctions – on another country that poses a negligible threat, beyond its pesky “socialist” label – already contributed to the world’s steepest rise in vaccine-preventable diseases such as the measles and diphtheria, and stark increases in infant and maternal morality resulted in perhaps 20,000 deaths annually. Thus, now that Corona has hit Venezuela full-force, President Maduro – through a combination of his own misrule and U.S. economic warfare – must fight the virus with “one hand tied behind his back.”
It must be said, however inconveniently for U.S. foreign policy elites, that in spite of this inhumane, and inessential, 60-year blockade, that Cuba’s medical system, at least, proved resilient – to such an extent, in fact, that its doctors and healthcare workers continued to deploy across the developing world on humanitarian missions. On this point, which he made in only the mildest sense, Bernie Sanders was manifestly correct – though it cost him politically.
One doesn’t need to love, or apologize for, the Castros’ every policy to admit a certain salient truth: that Cuba has, for decades, been a global leader in humanitarian internationalism, whether through its (often selfless and economically costly) export of healthcare professionals to the developing world, or its undeniably profound military-diplomatic contribution to the end of apartheid in Southern Africa.
Furthermore, with respect to the current crisis, Cuba has – it must be said – again risen to the occasion. Havana has already provided key COVID-19-related assistance to China, Venezuela, other developing nations, and even Europe. Only days ago, Havana allowed a British cruise ship – which had been stranded at sea for two days after five passengers tested Corona-positive – to dock, after two UK commonwealth nations (Bermuda and Barbados) had denied safe haven. When Cuba – the only nation to respond positively to multiple requests – aided the cruise liner, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs summed up its position, thus:
“These are times of solidarity, of understanding health as a human right, of reinforcing international cooperation to face our common challenges, values that are inherent in the humanistic practice of the Revolution and of our people”
Even if we assume that Havana’s actions are, in part, motivated by a desire for good press and ideological vindication, the positive human outcomes are incontrovertible. Perhaps the United States could stand to learn a little something (gasp!) from the Cuban example!
If Iraq suffered worst, and Cuba suffered longest, under U.S.-imposed strangulation blockades, Iran is the nation currently locked in Uncle Sam’s sanctions-sights. Although it does not yet possess a weapon of mass destruction, and had both signed and abided by the JCPOA (“Iran Nuclear Deal”), President Trump has ramped up penalties that are (surprise, surprise) again borne, in the main, by Iran’s civilian populace.
Even before the Corona-outbreak, U.S. sanctions are estimated to have caused 1600 H1N1 virus deaths in the Fall of 2019 alone. Now, Iran – which is one the countries worst affected by COVID-19 – though it reportedly had, over the last two decades, a “competent infectious disease detection and monitoring system, public health campaigns, and engagement with the international medical community,” is now faltering in its Corona-response.
This is due, at least in part, to its sanctioned-weakened economy. Tehran has labeled Washington’s policies as economic “terrorism,” and by any rational definition of the term – say, the “unlawful use or threat of violence especially against the state or the public as a politically motivated means of attack or coercion” (italics mine) – in this case, the “Ayatollah’s” ain’t far off.
What’s more, induced humanitarian catastrophes do not require direct American bombing, blockade, or sanctions imposition. Washington’s long record of, often disastrously, working through proxies (usually right-wing authoritarians at that), illustrates this as clear as day. In only the most recent exhibit of epidemic exacerbation, remember that the U.S.-backed Saudi terror war on, and blockade of, Yemen – which today aggravates the world’s worst cholera epidemic in what was already the Arab World’s poorest nation – couldn’t continue without Washington’s ample logistical and diplomatic support.
That U.S.-enabled Saudi starvation siege has cruelly amplified the world’s worst cholera outbreak, which according to the World Health Organization, has, as of March 8, resulted in over 2.2 million recorded cases and at least 3700 deaths. It is difficult to overstate the disastrous outcomes for an indigent, isolated state – with 80 percent of its population now reliant on humanitarian aid to survive, a shattered healthcare system, and having already suffered 100,000 war-related deaths – that now braces for a nearly inevitable Corona outbreak all its own.
Equally disturbingly, whatever one’s view of the sometimes repressive socialist regimes in Havana and Venezuela, Houthi-ruled Yemen, or the Islamic Republic in Iran, even the U.S. Government admits that the [Cuban] embargo never worked (as even conservative scholars have repeatedly demonstrated to be the case, writ large, for decades now). This, mind you, constitutes a rather salient point, given that in Just War theory, military actions – which (should) include economic sanctions – are only legitimate if they stand a “reasonable prospect of success.” Otherwise, such policies are needlessly cruel and inhumane. The logical implications of this clear reality are almost too darkly indicting for an informed American to countenance.
Naturally, nothing about America’s ongoing forever-war-escalations (in Iraq or otherwise), or the vital context of Washington’s complicity in, and historical exacerbation of, past epidemics, is likely to pierce a distracted and Corona-laser-focused, tunnel-vision corporate media. Disturbing as this undoubtedly is, neither apathy nor surrender are acceptable in these tumultuous times.
Albert Camus, the great postwar French existentialist philosopher of absurdism, has been a personal favorite and muse long before – in the midst of Corona-mania – he was recently rediscovered (his famed 1947 novel, “The Plague,” is currently selling out around the world). It is well that he has been.
Whether we’re talking about individuals, societies, or countries, progression isn’t possible without the collective penance of straight-forward self-examination. A landmark, if imperfect, example was the post-apartheid South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee. Seen in this light, the abhorrent U.S. record recounted above is no mere opportunistic anti-American “pile-on,” that some will claim. Consider it, instead, a candid clearing of the historical air preceding a sincere call for the U.S. Government to do better this time around.
Policymakers running the gamut straight up to the presidential top, have urged the populace to “take care of one another.” What we haven’t heard, but desperately need to, is a call to behave accordingly towards our fellow human beings the world over – including, especially, the citizens of ostensible “enemy” states. With confirmed Corona cases now in 169 countries (and counting), let us admit that pandemics recognize no nationality (“Chinese,” or otherwise), ethnicity, or religion. Basic human empathy demands that, for starters: the U.S. military halt all bombing and combat actions in the Greater Middle East, and that Washington lift all sanctions on every affected nation.
After all, as Camus’s literary protagonist, Dr. Rieux, reminds us, “It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency…”
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and contributing editor at antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War is now available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet. Check out his professional website for contact info, scheduling speeches, and/or access to the full corpus of his writing and media appearances.