The US election problem is over, but the coronavirus lingers

Joe Biden is the United States president-elect. Full stop. There’s no need to worry about what incumbent Donald Trump will do next. He can pout all he wants. He can sue in any court he wants. He can refuse to concede defeat as would any tin-horn dictator. But the real deal is, the US is not a banana republic. 

The secret service has already increased protection for the president-elect. The US intelligence services have begun briefing Biden, as is customary. On 20 January 2021, White House staff will remove Trump’s stuff and move Biden’s in. Trump can leave the White House kicking and screaming, but on 20 January he will be history.

Although the Trump reality show is over, there are some very real challenges that remain. As the election results revealed, the US is still a very polarised country and its leadership position in the world is less than secure. The US economy is, as is the case for most of the Western world, on the tank. Oh, and there is the question of what to do about the coronavirus.

During the last US presidential debate Trump accused Biden of being a fan of the lockdown and wanting to keep the country in lockdown for the foreseeable future. Biden’s weak response about how he would end it hurt him in states like Nevada, where the state government is restricting economic activity in the gaming and hospitality sectors.

All of this adds up to not much of a honeymoon for the Biden administration. The Biden-Harris team is going to have to hit the ground running. I have a couple of ideas about how their team can get off to a good start.

As Biden delivers his inaugural address on 20 January, if not before, he needs to declare unequivocally that he is going to do everything in his power to end any lockdowns and will make sure that the economy won’t be locked down again. If he does this, he accomplishes two things in one stroke.

Such a statement will give the markets a boost and businesses the confidence to gear up again. It will also be a boon to Biden’s efforts to bring the country together. No move will do more to galvanise a broad-based consensus than this. Although Trump and Biden disagreed in the last presidential debate about how to end the lockdown, neither argued continuing it would be good for the country. Likewise, I think ending the lockdown is something

 Trump and Biden voters could agree on.

If Biden had taken a stronger stance on the lockdown there’s no way the election would have been as close as it was, I believe. It would not have taken four days after the polls closed to determine who won in states like Nevada. More than 206 000 workers in Nevada have lost their jobs because of the lockdown. Ending the lockdown is the only way to prevent them from sliding into hunger and homelessness. The same is the case for the 15.6-million restaurant workers, the 2.3-million hotel workers, and the 75-million people working worldwide for US-based airline carriers. There is no real chance of recovery until the lockdown ends.

The second, and related thing, Biden needs to do is to convene with leaders from around the world to come up with a co-ordinated strategy to deal with Covid-19. It is a global phenomenon requiring a global response. This is the key to ending the corona-panic and jump-starting the global economy. Until everyone is singing from the same song sheet the cacophony of nation-specific strategies will result in the world limping along, at best, or being crippled beyond repair, at worst. 

When I say convene the world’s leaders I don’t mean just Western leaders. Every country has been affected by this pandemic, which means everyone has skin in the game. Leaders from every region of the world need to be at the table. I’d go further and say there must be a special place at the table for leaders of countries that didn’t impose a hard lockdown and had different results to those countries that did.  

Everything Biden wants to accomplish is tied to how he handles the coronavirus. He won’t be able to pull the country together if the breach between the “haves” and “have-nots” grows wider. He won’t be able to focus the country, and world, on climate change unless the working class and poor see a change in their situations. He won’t be able to count on compliance with some of the less draconian measures to contain the  virus unless the economy opens up.

Elections in the US are always about the economy. Those who have argued that dealing with Covid-19 is a choice between jobs or lives miss the point. Jobs are lives. Without a job you don’t eat; without a job you can’t keep a roof over your head or that of your family. In the battle against the coronavirus, a strong immune system is the first line of defence. Nothing wreaks havoc on the immune system like starvation and stress.

I was provided with a stark reminder of this truth as I was riding down one of the major thoroughfares in Johannesburg the other day. In the early days of South Africa’s lockdown, there were mainly black South Africans searching for a handout. The other day I saw a white man on the streets holding a sign that read — “Lockdown left me jobless, Please help with any donation”. That’s South Africa today, and America tomorrow. Need I say more?

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Charles R Stith
Charles Stith was former president Bill Clinton’s envoy to Tanzania and is currently the nonexecutive board chair of the African Presidential Leadership Centre, a Johannesburg-based NGO

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