US election: where do the candidates stand on Covid-19 response?

Allie Nawrat 26 October 2020 (Last Updated October 26th, 2020 14:37)

Unsurprisingly, Covid-19 is dominating the agenda in this US election, with Donald Trump defending his record against critique by Joe Biden, who wants to engage experts more and take a centralised, coordinated approach to the ending the pandemic. What are the policies of the two candidates for handling Covid-19 if they win the November election?

US election: where do the candidates stand on Covid-19 response?
The US population will go to the polls on 3 November to vote for their next President: Joe Biden or Donald Trump. Credit: Shutterstock.

On Tuesday 3 November, the US public will go to the polls to choose their President for the next four years. In this year’s race, incumbent Republican President Donald Trump is facing off against Democratic nominee and Barack Obama’s vice-president Joe Biden.

A major battleground in the 2020 US Presidential election is the Covid-19 pandemic. Although, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) poll from early October, the economy remains the most important issue for registered votes with 29% of the share, the Covid-19 outbreak comes in second with 18%.

Polls are starting to suggest Biden has a general nine-point lead over Trump, including a New York Times survey and a Reuters/Ipsos one, while in terms of development and distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine, 51% think Biden has a better approach, compared to 42% for Trump.

Let’s unpick the pledges of the two candidates on Covid-19 response, and establish what impact their victory in November would mean for the breaking the pandemic’s grip on the US.

Trump’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic

It is not particularly surprising that Covid-19 is dominating the agenda. The US currently has both the highest number of cases and deaths in the world – with eight million cases and more than 222,000 deaths, according to the John Hopkins University tracker.

There has been significant criticism of the Trump administration’s handling of this healthcare crisis, particularly around his role in spreading misinformation – for instance, he infamously suggested ingesting bleach to rid the body of Covid-19 in comments he later described as “sarcastic” –  as well as his mixed messages on the benefits of wearing masks as a public health measure. Trump has consistently defended his position on Twitter and in televised debates with Biden, and pushed blame for the viral outbreak on to others, including China and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Central to Trump’s policies around the Covid-19 pandemic has been vaccines. He has set up Operation Warp Speed to accelerate the development and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines by investing in companies with promising candidates, and therefore sharing some of the risk associated with drug development.

Trump left much of the rest of the Covid-19 response to the individual states, including contact tracing and acquisition of supplies, according to analysis by the Wall Street Journal.

What are Trump’s plans for the next stage of the pandemic?

Trump has continuously pushed for a Covid-19 vaccine to be available before the November election, however, in his manifesto section titled ‘Eradicate Covid-19’, the ambition is to develop a vaccine by the end of 2020. There is no mention of how these vaccines will be distributed or who will be prioritised if there are not sufficient doses.

Trump also calls for a return to normal in 2021 – with no insight of how that will be achieved – as well as to refill the stockpiles used up in the pandemic and prepare for future pandemics.

The last item is particularly interesting given that Trump actually disbanded a pandemic preparedness team in 2018 called the Global Health Security and Biodefense unit and he has pledged to leave the World Health Organization (WHO) because of alleged biases towards China, which is the body responsible for coordinating the response to global public health crises.

US election: Biden condemns Trump’s Covid-19 record

Biden has been highly critical of Trump’s pandemic response. “Donald Trump’s catastrophic failures of governance have led to tens of thousands of needless deaths and economic pain for tens of millions of Americans,” reads the candidate’s manifesto. “We are only four percent of the world’s population, yet we have 25 percent of the world’s cases and deaths.”

Biden has accused Trump of not listening to public health professionals, such as Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and employing both “political pressure” and “calculated cronyism” in managing medical research.

Trump’s relationship with Fauci has been fraught with disagreement – just this month, Trump called Fauci a “disaster” because the infectious disease expert stated he was not surprised Trump had caught Covid-19 during a TV Interview – whereas Biden has stated he would ask Fauci to serve him and encourage him to speak openly and directly to the US people about Covid-19 issues.

Deep dive into Biden’s Covid-19 plans

In his manifesto, Biden says, if elected, he would address Covid-19 by working with governors, mayors and other leaders from across the country so the federal government was playing a more active role. The issues that would be prioritised by a Biden administration would be test and trace, access to personal protective equipment, science-based treatment and vaccines, implementing steps to reopen the US safely and effectively and to protect those most at risk, including older people.

In terms of treatments and vaccines, Biden has said his response would be a coordinated, global one that would ramp up the large-scale manufacturing of as many vaccine candidates as necessary and to build up a nationwide vaccination campaign to ensure fair distribution. Biden has committed himself to ensure everyone in the US receives the vaccine, if they so wish, irrespective of their ability to pay.

Biden has also stated he will restore the US’s relationship with the WHO, saying “while not perfect, [it] is essential to coordinating a global response during a pandemic”.

Trump’s criticism of Biden does not focus on his Covid-19 strategy; the President is focused on noting the impact Biden’s win would have on the US economy, particularly through taxation, and corruption allegations linked to Biden’s son, Hunter. On 18 October, Trump tweeted: “Corrupt politician Joe Biden makes Crooked Hillary look like an amateur!”

However, Trump’s vice-president Mike Pence stated that in his debate with Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris that the Democratic candidate’s plan was very similar to Trump’s: “The reality is, when you look at the Biden plan, it reads an awful lot like what President Trump and I and our task force have been doing every step of the way.” He did not, therefore, criticise any specific elements of Biden’s plan.