Coronavirus Vindicates Capitalism

Drug companies will save lives, even as Bernie Sanders is denouncing them.

by Kimberley A. Strassel | WSJ.com | March 19, 2020 7:08 pm ET

The left is never apt to let a serious crisis go to waste, as we see with its daily use of the coronavirus pandemic to bash the Republican administration. The bigger danger is the efforts it is already making to exploit the panic for its longer-term goal of destroying U.S. capitalism.

Socialist Bernie Sanders led the charge last Sunday in his Democratic primary debate with Joe Biden. Bernie rolled out his usual themes, this time through the virus lens. The pandemic “exposes the incredible weakness and dysfunctionality” of the U.S. health system, he said; the cure is centralized, socialized care. Americans can’t get the drugs they need because “a bunch of crooks” run drug companies, “ripping us off every single day.” The virus exposes the “cruelty and unjustness” of an economy that allows “big-money interests” and “multimillionaires” to profiteer off “working families.”

He’s hardly alone. The coronavirus has “laid this bare: America was less prepared for a pandemic than countries with a universal health system,” declared Vox. The pandemic has “inflicted new stress on a system already too unequal to function,” wrote Sarah Jones in New York magazine, lecturing on the need to “devolve power from wealthy interests.” “The coronavirus crisis exposes the stupidity of Trump’s healthcare policies,” railed Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik. A Morning Consult poll suggests this opportunistic sloganeering is resonating, with 41% of the public more likely to support universal health-care proposals amid this pandemic.

Yet these claims are fantasy. Here’s the lesson of the virus so far: Relying solely on government bureaucracy is insane. To the extent America is weathering this moment, it is in enormous part thanks to the strength, ingenuity and flexibility of our thriving, competitive capitalist players.

Government will save us? How’s that working out for Italy? Even Mr. Biden made this point during the Sunday debate, reminding Mr. Sanders that “you have a single-payer system in Italy. It doesn’t work there.” Italy had 62 cases on Feb. 22; nearly a month later, that number is 41,000. It has recorded more deaths (3,400 plus) than any nation on the planet. Crucial miscommunication in early days between the central government and hospitals resulted in a system that is now overwhelmed and rationing treatment.

The U.S. is working hard to avoid its own worst-case scenario, and the federal and state governments are playing crucial roles in coordinating resources, imposing public-health measures, and keeping the public informed. But the single biggest mistake so far came from the government. The feds maintained exclusive control over early test development—and blew it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s failure delayed an effective U.S. response, and the private sector is now riding to the rescue.

The “crooks” at drug company Roche had started on their own high-volume test in January, and were finally able to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Google is up with a website advising people on symptoms; retailers like Walmart and CVS are converting parking lots for drive-through tests; private labs are standing by to process them.

As for other “moneyed interests,” no fewer than 30 Big Pharma and small biotech firms are racing for treatments and vaccines. Moderna turned around a vaccine batch in just 42 days. Gilead Sciences is already in Phase 3 trials for its remdesivir treatment for Covid-19. Straight off President Trump’s announcement of FDA approval for antimalarial drugs to treat the disease, Bayerannounced it would donate three million chloroquine tablets.

Meanwhile, the loathsome “multimillionaires” at ComcastVerizon andSprint are guaranteeing to keep Americans online for the next two months, regardless of who can pay. Adobe and Google are making remote-learning tools available to schools, universities and parents. U-Haul is offering free self-storage to college kids. Fannie Maeand Freddie Mac are suspending foreclosures. The list of corporations voluntarily offering sick leave, pay for contractors and vendors, work-at-home flexibility, and donations to affected communities is enormous—and inspiring, especially given the general financial distress.

Anyone who thinks this would be happening in a socialist America is smoking something. Government doesn’t have anywhere near the money, the speed or the creativity to stay ahead of a crisis like this—and the Trump administration deserves credit for embracing its private-sector partners. The business altruism on display is partly the usual American spirit, but it has been encouraged by free-market policies that have underwritten three years of economic boom and put companies on a better footing to confront hard times. And the profit motive and competition liberals detest remain the beating heart of the resourcefulness U.S. companies are now bringing to bear.

If the U.S. is to overcome this crisis and future ones, we need more of these animal spirits—not less. That’s the takeaway of this pandemic.

 

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