In the comparatively halcyon days of mid-February, NBC’s Chuck Todd asked the world’s ninth-wealthiest man, the multibillionaire Michael Bloomberg, perhaps the most biting personal question of the Democratic-primary season.
“Mayor Bloomberg,” the moderator asked during a debate in Las Vegas, “should you exist?”
Todd wasn’t suggesting that the 78-year-old former New York mayor, then a presidential hopeful, shuffle off to an early demise; rather, he was raising a delicate but emerging argument on the left—that the very presence of billionaires amassing jaw-dropping sums of money at a time of rampant income inequality represented a policy failure.
Less than a month later, Todd’s query comes across much differently. The coronavirus pandemic is cratering the American economy and threatens to overwhelm hospitals across the country. Governors, mayors, health-care executives, and frontline responders are warning of shortages of crucial medical equipment and supplies, including the ventilators that infected patients will need to breathe and the face masks and other protective gear that health workers require to avoid contracting the virus themselves.
The federal government is scrambling to assume a warlike footing and make up for a painfully slow initial response to the outbreak. On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence urged construction companies to donate their protective face masks to the health-care industry and hold off on further orders that could strain supply. That night, the Trump administration reached out to manufacturers across the country, seeking “volunteers who can donate and/or produce large-scale quantities of critical supplies” such as masks, cotton swabs, gloves, and ventilators, according to an email circulating among industry officials obtained by The Atlantic. Yesterday, the president said he would invoke the 1950 Defense Production Act to mobilize industry to supply the pandemic response.