WASHINGTON — This is politics in a pandemic age: A presidential debate conducted in a sterile television studio, podiums separated by an awkward 6 feet, and a former vice president insisting that he no longer touches his face. (Seconds before, he had touched his face.)
The debate cemented the weeks-old reality that the novel coronavirus pandemic has come to dominate every aspect of American politics. And it provided the two remaining Democratic presidential candidates — who greeted one another not with a handshake but with an elbow bump — a chance to articulate a presidential message in the face of inconsistent, often inaccurate messaging from the Trump administration.
They found varied success. Former Vice President Joe Biden drew a number of contrasts not with his rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), but with President Trump’s response, which has been hampered by a lack of available coronavirus test kits and focused largely on banning travel from hard-hit countries worldwide.
“The World Health Organization — I’d take advantage of the test kits they made available to us,” Biden said, referencing the Trump administration’s decision to forego using existing WHO tests, and the country’s resulting test-capacity crisis.
Some of Biden’s plans expanded on the Trump administration’s ongoing response to the pandemic. Trump, on Friday, unlocked emergency powers to confront the coronavirus crisis and promised wider testing capabilities, including via drive-through locations.
“Secondly,” he said, “I would make sure that every state in the union had at least 10 places where they had drive-through testing arrangements,” mirroring an initiative the administration rolled out earlier Sunday. Biden also said he would deploy the military to prevent further spread of the coronavirus, and deploy Pentagon resources to construct additional resources.
Sanders, too, used the coronavirus and the Trump administration’s scattered response as an attack opening.
“The first thing we have got to do, whether or not I’m president, is to shut this president up right now, because he’s undermining the doctors and the scientists who are trying to help the American people,” Sanders said. “It is unacceptable for him to be blabbering with unfactual inflammation, which is confusing to the general public.”
Trump, at various points during the crisis, has misleadingly compared the virus to the seasonal flu; referred to Democrats’ criticism of his administration as a “hoax,” and misleadingly instructed the public that any individual seeking coronavirus testing could receive it. Friday, when Trump announced that Google was creating a website Americans could use to determine whether they exhibited symptoms for Covid-19, the respiratory disease the coronavirus causes, he neglected to mention that the initiative was in the early stages of development — and would only be made available to those in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The pandemic, which has shuttered schools and restaurants and sickened over 3,000 Americans to date, served as a central theme throughout the debate, even as the topic strayed from health care to the economy to safety net programs like Social Security.
Sanders attempted to highlight an American reality unique within the developed world: That for many U.S. residents, being tested or treated for coronavirus could pose a financial obstacle. His campaign has used the pandemic to highlight his signature policy proposal: A “Medicare for All” system in which the government covers the cost of most or all health care, as is the case in hard-hit nations including Italy and South Korea.
The nation’s network of thousands of private insurers, as well as government entities like Medicare and Medicaid, isn’t sufficient, Sanders said, arguing that 60,000 Americans die each year waiting to access health care, a figure experts have said is exaggerated.
“How come we don’t have enough doctors? How come hospitals in rural areas are shutting down? How come people can’t afford to get the prescription drugs they need, because we have a bunch of crooks who are running the pharmaceutical industry ripping us off every single day?” Sanders said. “I’ll tell you something right now: In the midst of this epidemic, you’ve got people in the pharmaceutical industry [who] are saying, oh, wow, what an opportunity to make a fortune.”
In the past two decades, U.S. companies have been criticized for upcharging for drugs needed amid epidemics, including the nation’s drug overdose crisis. Already, one U.S. drug manufacturer has earned more than $200 million off stock-market maneuvering as it attempts to bring a coronavirus vaccine to market. A recently unsealed whistleblower lawsuit also accuses the drug giant Roche of overselling the antiviral drug Tamiflu’s efficacy, more than a decade after U.S. officials spent over $1 billion to stockpile the drug.
While Biden pushed back on Sanders’ Medicare for All advocacy, he agreed that the U.S. government should pick up the tab for coronavirus-related testing and treatment.
“It has nothing to do with Medicare for All — that would not solve the problem at all,” he said. “We can take care of that right now by making sure that no one has to pay for treatment, period, because of the crisis. No one has to pay for whatever drugs are needed, period, because of the crisis. No one has to pay for hospitalization, because of the crisis, period!”
“It is not working in Italy right now,” Biden said, “and they have a single-payer system.”
Yet each candidate’s vision for a pandemic response strayed toward the bizarre. At one point, Biden referred to the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009 as “N1H1.” Soon after, he appeared to refer to the Western African Ebola epidemic as “what happened in Africa” without naming the virus, though he later referenced Ebola directly.
Sanders experienced the opposite problem: On at least two occasions, he called the coronavirus outbreak “Ebola.”