Latin America’s Virus Villains: Corrupt Officials Collude With Price Gougers for Body Bags and Flimsy Masks

The coronavirus has devastated Latin America. And it has only been worsened by a wave of graft and profiteering, prosecutors say.

By Natalie Kitroeff and Mitra Taj


A forensic investigator disinfecting a body bag holding the remains of a man who collapsed on the street and died from from the coronavirus last month in Quito, Ecuador.Credit...Dolores Ochoa/Associated Press



Of all the schemes that have siphoned resources from Latin American countries fighting the coronavirus, the body bag conspiracy might be the most brazen.

Last month, prosecutors in Ecuador announced they had identified a criminal ring that had colluded with health officials to win a contract selling body bags to hospitals at 13 times the real price.

Then one of the men implicated, Daniel Salcedo, fled Ecuador in a small plane that crashed in Peru. Mr. Salcedo is now recovering in the custody of the Ecuador police.

Even as Latin America has emerged as an epicenter of the pandemic, with deaths and infections soaring, efforts to contain the crisis have been undermined by a litany of corruption scandals.

Dozens of public officials and local entrepreneurs stand accused of exploiting the crisis for personal enrichment by peddling influence to price-gouge hospitals and governments for medical supplies, including masks, sanitizer and ventilators. Some of the gear was so flawed that it was rendered useless — and may have contributed to even more sickness and death.

“People are dying in the streets because the hospital system collapsed,” said Diana Salazar, Ecuador’s attorney general. “To profit from the pain of others, with all these people who are losing their loved ones, it’s immoral.”

Investigations into fraud have reached the highest levels of government. The former Bolivian health minister is under house arrest awaiting trial on corruption charges after the ministry paid an intermediary millions more than the going rate for 170 ventilators — which didn’t even work properly.


Marcelo Navajas, Bolivia’s former health minister, looking at a ventilator last month. He was arrested the next day, May 20, on charges of corruption related to the purchase of substandard ventilators.Credit...Diario El Debate, via Reuters


In Brazil, which has the second highest number of coronavirus deaths after the United States — and on Friday surpassed one million reported cases — government officials in at least seven states are under investigation on suspicion of misusing more than $200 million in public funds during the crisis.

In Colombia, the inspector general is investigating reports that more than 100 political campaign donors received lucrative contracts to provide emergency supplies during the pandemic.

Peru’s police chief and interior minister resigned after their subordinates bought diluted sanitizer and flimsy face masks for police officers, who then began dying of infections from the virus at alarming rates.

Prosecutors are investigating links between police officials and the suppliers of the equipment to determine whether they colluded to defraud the government, according to Omar Tello, the head of anti-corruption investigators in the prosecutor’s office.

Armillón Escalante, a police officer in Lima, said that he and his colleagues were given paper-thin masks and gloves that broke immediately.

“We didn’t really have any protection,” he said. Mr. Escalante was enforcing social-distancing measures in a crowded market alongside three other officers who have since died of the virus.

Mr. Escalante became infected in April and spent three weeks intubated in the hospital. He still suffers pain in his lungs and shortness of breath when talking.

“It wasn’t just me. The majority of us were abandoned,” he said. “I don’t feel the same as before. The disease has damaged my organs.”

When Peruvian prosecutors began to look into the purchase of protective gear this month, several boxes of evidence went missing at the headquarters of the police’s investigative crime unit in Lima. Police officers told the authorities that several security cameras were not working the day they disappeared.

Mr. Tello said the monitoring system appeared to have been manipulated and prosecutors are working to extract images of people who removed the boxes.

More than 11,000 police officers in Peru have been infected and 200 have died of the virus, according to the government, forcing the country to shutter some stations at least temporarily to contain outbreaks.

Peruvian police officers began dying of infections from the virus at alarming rates after they were issued flimsy face masks.
Peruvian police officers began dying of infections from the virus at alarming rates after they were issued flimsy face masks.Credit...Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press



Coronavirus is testing nations that were struggling with corruption long before confronting a global health emergency. Presidents in Brazil, Peru and Guatemala have been forced from office in cases of bribery and kickbacks over the years.

But the pandemic has broadened the opportunities for public officials in Latin America to pilfer from state coffers, corruption experts say. Declaring a state of emergency, several countries suspended some regulations governing public contracts, paused in-person congressional sessions or did away with rules requiring them to respond to media requests for information.

“You have the ideal conditions for doing whatever you want,” said Eduardo Bohorquez, the director of Transparency International Mexico, an anti-corruption nonprofit group. “There is less transparency, less access to information, and zero independent oversight from Congress.”

The federal hospital system in Mexico gave back flawed ventilators that it had ordered from the son of the head of the federal electricity commission, after a local watchdog group revealed that the government had agreed to pay 85 percent more than the cheapest option.

Last month, an official within the Bolivian health ministry went to a Spanish company called IME Consulting to purchase 170 ventilators even though another company was offering the machines for half the price.

The Bolivian government agreed to pay IME Consulting about $28,000 per ventilator — three times the price that the original manufacturer said it charges for each machine.

Shortly after the ventilators arrived, doctors began complaining that the machines were not suitable to treat seriously ill coronavirus patients. A lawyer for the former health minister, Marcelo Navajas, told reporters he was “totally and absolutely innocent” and that “there was absolutely no illegal or inappropriate action here.”

Days before Mr. Salcedo’s botched escape from Ecuador, police officers raided the home of a former president, Abdalá Bucaram. They arrested him after having discovered an illegal firearm, along with thousands of face masks and coronavirus tests.

Former President Abdalá Bucaram of Ecuador, third from left, was escorted out of his residence in Guayaquil during an early morning raid this month.
Former President Abdalá Bucaram of Ecuador, third from left, was escorted out of his residence in Guayaquil during an early morning raid this month.Credit...Marcos Pin/EPA, via Shutterstock



“Mr. Bucaram isn’t procedurally qualified as an importer or a vendor of medical supplies,” said Ms. Salazar, the attorney general. She said prosecutors suspect that a criminal group including Mr. Salcedo, Mr. Bucaram and some of their family members have been overcharging hospitals for medical equipment since 2018. Last year, the attorney general said, they sold one hospital thousands of body bags for $148 each, even though they were only worth about $11.

Mr. Salcedo “has been a vendor during the health emergency as well,” said Ms. Salazar. “Of course, he had to take advantage.”

Mr. Salcedo’s brother, Noé, was caught this month trying to cross the border into Peru with $47,000 in cash — money that investigators believe was illicitly obtained — and he is now in jail. Prosecutors have issued arrest warrants for Michel and Dalo Bucaram, two of the former president’s sons. Until recently, Dalo Bucaram was staying at Mr. Salcedo’s house in Miami.

Mr. Salcedo’s lawyer has said her client is not involved in a corruption scheme and that the cash his brother was carrying came from a bank loan taken out by his parents. Mr. Bucaram, who is under house arrest, has denied the charges against him and said he faces “cowardly political persecution.”

Investigators suspect the tests and the masks found in Mr. Bucaram’s house were destined for Teodoro Maldonado Carbo hospital in Guayaquil, one of the cities hardest hit by the virus, where dead bodies piled up outside hospitals or were packed inside empty banana cartons for lack of storage space.

Alex Vivas, a doctor treating coronavirus patients at Teodoro Maldonado Carbo hospital, said he was appalled by the scheme.

“For us, the medics on the front lines, it is outrageous to see this level of corruption,” Mr. Vivas said in an interview. “To see how these overpriced contracts consume up the budgets that should be destined for such protection gear, it’s simply outrageous.”


Reporting was contributed by José María León Cabrera, Maria Silvia Trigo, Jenny Carolina González and Elda Cantú.

The Messiah of Mar-a-Lago

The US was a tinderbox of racism, inequality, and broken politics well before Donald Trump entered the White House, but he lit the match and added fuel. Unless Americans vote him out in November, putting out the fires – and repairing the national and international damage – may well become impossible.

Shlomo Ben-Ami

benami164_BRENDAN SMIALOWSKIAFP via Getty Images_trumpwalking


TEL AVIV – US President Donald Trump says he is “the chosen one,” and many of his evangelical supporters agree. But standing, Bible in hand, in front of the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, after the police used riot shields and tear gas to clear the area of peaceful protesters, Trump had more in common with Jesus Christ’s donkey than with a savior. Far from liberating a fallen civilization, Trump is pushing one to its breaking point, creating precisely the kind of mayhem that many of his evangelical supporters believe will precede – and necessitate – the arrival of a messiah.
Trump ran for president in 2016 on the promise to “Make America Great Again.” His campaign for re-election in November pledges, with all the clueless arrogance we have come to expect, to “Keep America Great.”

Is this the same America that is facing widespread protests over systemic racism and police brutality, and in which the law-enforcement officers who are supposed to keep the peace are routinely stoking violence? The America where the police kill black men at 2.5 times the rate of white men?

Is Trump referring to the America that is in the throes of the world’s worst COVID-19 outbreak, in which black people are dying at far higher rates than their white counterparts? The America where about 44 million people have no health insurance, and another 38 million have inadequate coverage? The one that, under Trump’s leadership, has lost the respect of its friends, allies, and partners, and become an international laughingstock?

To be sure, America’s problems did not begin with Trump. The US health-care system has long been broken, inequality has been rising for decades, police brutality has always been part of American life, and systemic racism is built into the country’s very foundations. US pretensions of moral leadership were being called into question well before Trump entered the White House.

But if the United States was a tinderbox of racism, inequality, and broken politics, Trump lit the match – and then held himself blameless for the resulting fires. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” he declared, when asked about the government’s slow response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Worse, Trump continued to add fuel. He downplayed the pandemic’s severity, egged on (mostly white, Republican) anti-lockdown protesters, and touted unproven and potentially dangerous treatments.

When nationwide protests erupted after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, he threatened to deploy the military against Americans, prompting four-star general John Allen to warn that such a move could signal the “beginning of the end of the American experiment.” And, with a blatant racist dog whistle, he repeated a line attributed to Walter Headley, Miami’s police chief during the civil disorder there in 1967: “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Trump’s behavior has been shocking, but not surprising. He has been exploiting America’s deepest flaws since he arrived on the political scene, stoking political and cultural polarization to appease his base, including its significant component of white supremacists. Meanwhile, he has maintained his grip on the Republican Party with a conventional combination of tax cuts and deregulation that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations. And, for four consecutive years, his administration has shifted public money from the social safety net and education to the military. The US defense budget is now the largest it has been since World War II, barring a handful of years at the height of the Iraq War.

Why, one might reasonably ask, is Trump arming America to the teeth? After all, he has abdicated US global leadership and let China fill the vacuum without firing a single shot. Not only has he abandoned diplomatic norms, dismissed and betrayed allies, and bullied countries with sanctions and threats. He has also withdrawn from international agreements, including the Iran nuclear deal (officially, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and the Paris climate agreement.

For Europeans – who disagreed with Trump on most of these decisions – the US is no longer a source of strategic or moral leadership. It may not even be a fellow member of the transatlantic community. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent rebuff of Trump’s invitation to a G7 summit shows how far relations have fallen. Only desperate cynics like Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu, evangelical liars like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, poseurs like Britain’s Boris Johnson, and bullies like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte still relish Trump’s friendship.

There is only one way to repair America’s reputation, regain the trust of allies, and ensure that the US can act as an effective counterweight to China: address the root causes of the cracks that Trump’s disastrous presidency has exposed and widened. This is in line with the vision advanced in 2011 by two military strategists, Captain Wayne Porter and Colonel Mark Mykleby, using the pseudonym “Mr. Y.”

Porter and Mykleby argued that national security depends not only on the capacity to respond to threats from foreign powers, but also – and perhaps more important – on the “application of credible influence and strength.” That influence, in turn, depends on America’s success in providing a “pathway of promise” for US citizens – and a model for the world.

Such soft power requires the US government to promote civilian values, foster competitiveness and innovation, protect the environment, invest in social services, health care, culture, and education, and deliver opportunities to younger generations. In other words, it should be pursuing the opposite of Trump’s agenda.

Trump is the antithesis of the kind of leader that Max Weber believed should “be allowed to put his hand on the wheel of history.” A large and growing share of Americans seems to recognize this: his approval rating has been declining for weeks. But a Trump victory in the November election remains a real possibility.

No one should have any illusions about the stakes. Winning another four-year term could embolden Trump to act even more irresponsibly, even criminally, and make his toxic legacy irreversible.


Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.

Counting the cost

America’s public-pension funding crisis worsens

Funding ratios have fallen and the cost of provision has risen



Share prices may have rallied from the depths they plumbed when the coronavirus pandemic was spreading rapidly around the world. But the s&p 500, America’s main stockmarket index, is still below its level at the start of the year. That is bad news for pension funds, which rely on their investments to pay out benefits to retired people.

Unless markets recover fully, the Centre for Retirement Research (crr) in Boston estimates, the average funding ratio of American state and local-government pension plans for the fiscal year ending in June 2020 will be 69.5%. That is the lowest level this century. Back in 2000 the average plan was fully funded.

Even that measure relies on the generous way that public-sector plans can calculate their pension liabilities. The cost of paying pensions stretches decades into the future; those expected payments must be discounted in order to calculate the current funding cost. The higher the discount rate, the lower the current cost appears to be.

Private-sector pension funds must use corporate-bond yields, currently low, as a discount rate; public-sector funds are allowed to use the expected rate of return on their investments. Many assume a rate of 7-7.5%, which makes the current cost of funding pensions look lower.

In the long run, however, accounting conventions cannot lower the actual cost of providing pensions. Many companies in the private sector have abandoned offering pensions linked to workers’ final salaries because of the increased expense. The crr figures show that the cost has been steadily rising for public-sector funds as well.


Back in 2002 they paid an average of 7.8% of payrolls to fund pensions; in 2020 that contribution is likely to be 19.7%, the highest so far this century. If a more conservative accounting treatment were used, closer to the private-sector approach, that rate would double. Even assuming public pension funds continue to use their current approach, the crr estimates, the contribution may rise to 29.1% of pay by 2025 if markets are slow to recover.

This is a slow-motion crisis, precisely because the liabilities stretch out over many decades. But by 2025 eight funds may have only enough assets to cover less than four years of benefits, the crr estimates; three of these funds—Chicago Municipal, Dallas Police and Fire, and New Jersey Teachers—will have a mere two years’ worth. If that happens, taxpayers will simply have to stump up more money to keep benefits flowing.

Will the US take the path to radical change post-pandemic?

A mix of pre-existing discontent, a bad case of Covid-19 and a looming election could prove revolutionary

Simon Kuper


© Harry Haysom


In March 1917, Vladimir Lenin was living in Zurich, in smelly rooms rented from a shoemaker, spending his days in the library. When a neighbour told him there had been a revolution in Russia, he could hardly believe it.

The Germans put the obscure troublemaker on a train to Petrograd (as St Petersburg had been renamed) in the hope of disrupting Russia, their enemy in the Great War. Lenin arrived in Petrograd with that rare asset at a time of flux: a plan.

He promised to make peace with Germany, give land to the peasants and hand “all power to the Soviets”, the newly formed councils of workers, soldiers and peasants. In October the Bolsheviks seized the Winter Palace.

Nothing about their triumph was historically inevitable. Alexander Kerensky, head of the provisional liberal government, who would die almost forgotten in New York in 1970, might have prevailed.

Lenin won because he was lucky, but also because he had a story of hope, a sense that the moment had come to bet his life’s work without compromise, and a project — communism — that he had elaborated in the library. It was a disastrous project, but then it’s not the best ideas that win in times of flux. It’s the ones that are ready.

There are lessons here for today’s moment of flux.

People are speculating about how the pandemic might change the world.

In fact, as in Russia in 1917, everything is up for grabs.

Each country will take its own path, largely because, as in 1917, there is almost no international co-ordination.

This isn’t like the period of flux after the second world war, which produced multinational bodies such as the UN, the IMF and the EEC. Rather, there are four main scenarios that will play out differently in different countries:

1. The status quo prevails.

That’s most likely if the pandemic proves brief. In that case, governments will turn the carbon tap back on, and preserve the existing economy, like after the financial crisis of 2008. This is their easiest option, because few governments have big ideas.

To expect a career politician to have a project for societal change is like expecting a stand-up comedian to build a moon rocket.

Yet, saving the status quo would not assuage the anti-system anger on right and left that was deafening even before the pandemic/depression. And with so many people now broke or housebound, there’s almost no demand for carbon.

2. Nativist change.

In this scenario, governments curtail immigration, trade and global supply chains. Italy and perhaps others leave the EU.

Donald Trump might have chosen this route had he still had Steve Bannon feeding him ideas.

But without a plan, and obsessed with the stock market, he is pushing the economic status quo.

3. A crackdown on democracy.

Hungary’s Viktor Orban is currently ruling by decree, though the government now says those powers will lapse on June 20. Meanwhile, China is tightening the leash on Hong Kong.

4. Progressive change.

This would take the form of “green new deals”, higher government spending, and redistribution, partly through wealth taxes and crackdowns on tax dodging. It wouldn’t only be implemented by leftwing governments.

Britain’s Tories have passed the country’s biggest fiscal stimulus since 1992. Most governments still deny that they can print money with impunity, as advocated by modern monetary theory, but what matters is that they are doing it.

Moreover, so many trillions have been spent that the thought of spending more on, say, a universal basic income, now seems conceivable. An economist who is advising a major western government on its response says that all the usual fiscal constraints have suddenly become flexible.

------------------------------

The one option that seems almost inconceivable is revolution.

No major democracy today would offer revolutionaries worthwhile help (even the EU is pretending not to notice Orban’s power grab), and digital surveillance would catch plotters before they got anywhere near the palace.

The decline of terrorism in the west since about 2017 and the decline of revolutions since 2011 are two sides of the same coin — the end of privacy.

Which democracy seems ripest for change?

The country with a killer combination of strong pre-existing discontent (as we’re seeing now), a bad case of Covid-19 and a looming election is the US.

Moreover, the Democrats will enter the election with their most radical programme since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

Joe Biden, long derided as a no-change centrist, said in May: “From this crisis, we have an opportunity not just to rebuild the economy but to transform it.”

With a proposed federal minimum wage of $15 an hour, big green ambitions, write-offs of student debt and expanded Medicare, he aims to combine Ronald Reagan’s persona with Bernie Sanders’ programme.

Nobody would call Biden an ideas person steeped in libraries, but his campaign is listening to people who are, such as the progressive economist Jared Bernstein, Elizabeth Warren and several Sanders advisers including Stephanie Kelton, mother of modern monetary theory.

Radical change in the US has never seemed less improbable.

Who Needs Cities When We All Work From Home?

Urban areas will survive a surge in working from home but may have to reinvent themselves

By Justin Lahart


Technology has given a boost to knowledge-industry hubs such as New York, but new work-from-home trends could erode that. / Photo: mike segar/Reuters .


For decades people have predicted technology would level America’s geographic playing field, allowing areas outside of knowledge-industry hubs such as the San Francisco Bay and New York metropolitan areas to attract more high earners. It hasn’t happened, but Covid-19 could change that.

Cities have historically been the drivers of commerce and innovation. When people and firms gathered near one another, they were able to quickly meet each other’s needs while sharing ideas.

Technology seems like it should have eroded those benefits. Instead, some cities, such as Detroit, fell into steep decline while others, such as New York, after setbacks, emerged as vital as ever.



What happened, says Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser, is that although information technology made it easier for manufacturers to move away from cities, it increased the benefits of proximity when it came to developing innovations in knowledge-intensive industries. So even though they were initially hurt by manufacturers’ exit, places that had many educated people eventually thrived.

But communications technology has kept advancing and workers have become more adept at using it, especially amid the Covid-19 crisis and the work-from-home experiment it has created. Having learned that they can work effectively without having everybody in the office, companies won’t unlearn it.

Christy Johnson founded Artemis Connection, a 35-person consulting firm, five years ago, and from the start everybody has worked remotely. Among the upsides to using remote workers, beyond not having to pay for expensive office space, she says, is the ability to tap into talent everywhere.

Many of her firms’ clients are interested in continuing to use remote-work arrangements once the crisis has passed, but she acknowledges that it isn’t applicable in all settings. “There are some areas where face to face has to happen—think about innovation that has to happen in a lab,” she says.


Companies also need to take into consideration the employee loyalty that comes when people work together. Younger workers’ desire to live and work where they can meet and mingle will remain a draw, too. Harvard’s Mr. Glaeser says that more companies may move to set up satellite offices to keep those benefits while casting a larger net for talent.

“I think we’ll see more clusters of creativity in remote offices centered around consumer cities—places where people want to live, like Boulder or Vail,” he says. Having workers telecommute from home a couple of days a week—a measure many employers will likely adopt to lengthen social distancing until a vaccine becomes available—could be another lasting change.

Many companies will just go back to their old way of doing things, but even partial adoption could have big repercussions. People who only go to office a few days a week, for example, will be more willing to live far from the city, affecting property values. It also would lower the demand for commercial office space and hurt sales at downtown restaurants and retailers.

Cities might have to reinvent themselves all over again.

Another Long, Hot Summer in America

Many Americans are clearly horrified by President Donald Trump's crass and incendiary words in response to the protests sweeping the country's major cities. But will age-old racial prejudices, often unspoken, or even acknowledged, still make them vote for the false security of a coarse white bully?

Ian Buruma

buruma161_Drew AngererGetty Images_usprotestusflagwhitehouse


NEW YORK – Could the United States be facing a reprise of the summer of 1968? Then, too, the world saw images of popular rage boiling over in America, as mostly African-American inner cities went up in flames, and young people were tear-gassed, charged at, and often brutally beaten by riot police and National Guardsmen.

The result of the civil disorder was what some liberals in America fear will happen later this year. The Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon promised the “silent majority,” the “non-shouters,” and the “non-demonstrators,” that he would restore law and order with force.

Devastated, mostly African-American urban areas were starved of federal funds and further isolated, white suburbanites bought more guns, and police forces were armed as though they were a branch of the military.

The trouble in 1968, like the protests today, also started with anger against the oppression of black people in America. A day after Martin Luther King, Jr., declared that “the nation is sick,” he was shot dead by a white racist criminal. The protests that followed were not just an expression of anger at King’s murder, but also the lack of economic and educational opportunities that were the result of a long and often violent racist history.

Despite an African-American’s two terms in the White House, conditions today are hardly better – and in some ways worse. King’s violent death was echoed this year by that of George Floyd, the defenseless 46-year-old black man in Minneapolis killed by a policeman who kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes.

Moreover, COVID-19 has hit African-Americans with particular fury, because many lack financial savings and are forced to work in risky areas, as nurses and other “essential workers,” often without proper health care. Once the global depression sinks in, many won’t be cushioned by anything at all.

And yet, there are important differences between now and the summer of 1968, apart from the fact that the music was more interesting then, and there were more sexual opportunities. The last point is not entirely frivolous. Being effectively locked up in relative isolation for several months will only have added to the frustrations of many young people, who are only too glad to vent them in the streets.

The protests in 1968 were not just about racial inequality, but also about the Vietnam War. The two issues were related. President Lyndon B. Johnson, responsible for escalating that reckless and savage war, was a Democrat, the same man who passed civil rights bills that had actually improved African-Americans’ lives, and by doing so provoked the hatred of many Southern voters, who switched their allegiance to the Republican Party, helping to push it further to the right.

The “shouters” and “demonstrators” that Nixon railed against were not just black people, but also young whites who resisted being forced to fight in a war they considered immoral. Robert F. Kennedy, the candidate who promised to end the war and who visited the burning ghettos to calm African-Americans’ fears, was assassinated two months after King.

Nixon won the election that November not only because he soothed the panicked “silent majority” with promises of law and order, but also because Hubert Humphrey, a decent mainstream Democrat, refused to condemn the Vietnam War. Joe Biden, this year’s presumptive Democratic candidate, has shown that for all his flaws, he may not be another Hubert Humphrey.

His sympathies are clearly with the demonstrators. Biden has publicly recalled many instances of police violence against unarmed black people and promised to reform law enforcement.

In bad times, the challenger has a certain advantage. Just as Johnson was held accountable for escalating an increasingly unpopular war, the current occupant of the White House will have to own the sickness of America today. Donald Trump cannot be blamed for the COVID-19 pandemic, but he can be held accountable for botching the response.2

Likewise, the institutional racism that once again is setting America’s streets on fire did not begin with Trump. But he has deliberately fanned the flames by insulting dark-skinned immigrants as criminals and calling armed white supremacists decent, by dismissing angry black protesters as “thugs,” and encouraging militiamen, guardsmen, and policemen to do their worst, or as he put it with a snarl: “Please don’t be too nice.”

While some groups on the far right in the US talk, hopefully, of a coming “race war,” Trump does nothing to dampen their violent enthusiasm. On the contrary, he seems to revel in it. Trump’s recent tweet that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” is a direct quote from the police chief of Miami, Florida, who ordered his troopers in 1967 to aim their shotguns at demonstrators from the “negro areas” in his city.

This is called “stirring up the base.” And much of Trump’s base surely will be stirred up. The big question in November will be what people who voted for him in 2016, but are not as fanatical in their support, will do. What are white suburban women, midwestern blue-collar workers, and elderly southerners (who are among most vulnerable to COVID-19 infection) thinking now?

Many Americans are clearly horrified by their president’s crass and incendiary words. But will their disapproval be offset by anxiety about violent social unrest? Will age-old racial prejudices, often unspoken, or even acknowledged, still make them vote for the false security of a coarse white bully?

Much will depend on how hot this summer gets. If people think rationally in November, it is hard to imagine that enough of them would vote to keep this appalling administration in power for another four years. But fear is reason’s worst enemy.


Ian Buruma is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, Year Zero: A History of 1945, and, most recently, A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir.