Congressman John Sarbanes Declares: “Without the Tests We Are in the Dark”

May 2, 2020
By Matina Demelis

Congressman John Sarbanes, who represents Maryland’s 3rd district, talked to The National Herald about the efficacy of the United States’ coronavirus response and the need for a proper testing program so that the country can open up again.

The National Herald: Was the United States late in taking actions against COVID-19?

Congressman John Sarbanes: I think the biggest issue is that we didn't have the testing capacity at the beginning of this outbreak, as a result of that we missed the window to do containment and we had to go straight to mitigation, which is to require people to stay home and close down establishments. If we had more testing capacity early on, it might have been possible to avoid the dimensions of mitigation, although it is not clear. Overall, I think we were 2-3 weeks behind where we should have been. But that is behind us now, so now we must do the best we can to defeat the challenge moving forward. This shows the importance of testing capacity.

TNH: What actions did the United States take to confront the pandemic?

JS: We passed three pieces of legislation on a bipartisan basis in Congress. We’ve done that in order to address both the public health crisis and to address the economic disruption that has occurred. We’ve tried to focus on five or six key areas of the systems, so first and foremost to make sure that we’re bringing resources to the hospitals and the health care providers and workers – billions of dollars. Secondly to bring some direct payments to state and local governments because they are suffering tremendously. They've lost a lot of revenue. Tax revenue is down and they have to spend money to address the pandemic.

I'm glad to see that there are bipartisan groups of governors from across the country, Republicans and Democrats, that are asking the White House to provide additional support for state and local governments, because when you talk about state and local governments you’re talking about firefighters, police officers, emergency technicians, teachers. They’re the ones that are really trying to keep us safe right now; they need more assistance. We also have the direct payments to families which are really important because a lot of people are in a very serious situation.

Also, we have expanded and extended unemployment insurance benefits since millions of people have lost their jobs. In addition, we’ve created these loan programs for small businesses, the paycheck protection program and the economic injury disaster loans. This is a very important thing for the Greek community because so many Greek-Americans in this country have small businesses, so the paycheck protection program is very crucial. It is so crucial that the demand for it already used up the 350 billion dollars that we appropriated about three weeks ago. Now, the push is to add an additional 250 billion. Democrats in Congress feel very strongly that a certain amount of this money should go to community financial institutions, community development institutions around the country because in a lot of places the smallest businesses don't have relationships with the big banks, but only with those community development institutions. This is another key area that we want to make sure we provide support.

These are some of the things that we’re very focused on right now and will continue to focus on, because people are really facing a tremendous challenge right now, especially if you were a family or a business that was already living on the margins before this crisis, then the impact of this would be very devastating on you – which is why it’s so important to address these issues.”

TNH: When do you believe we are going to have control of this pandemic? And when will we have the tests?

JS: The number one priority of the Democrats is on the issue of testing. We have to make testing more available and provide the equipment for it. Because that way you identify the people that are infected and it's also the way we will be able to implement public health measures like contact tracing. If you don't have effective testing you won't be able to reopen the economy and get back to a sense of normalcy. Without the testing, you are operating in the dark. I think it' s going to be difficult to get to the levels of testing that we need within the next 30 days. I think we could make some progress. Some of the machines that are being manufactured right now are not as accurate as they should be. Also, there are two kinds of testing that are being discussed; one is the diagnostic one, PCR testing, as well as the antibody testing. Both are important but the most important one is the diagnostic test, for which you need the machines”.

TNH: Are Americans following the guidelines and social distancing?

JS: I think that the governors have been good at encouraging and requiring that the public engage in social distancing and other precautions. Now you' re seeing several governors, including in Maryland where I live, are requiring anyone who goes into a store or a place where they can't maintain social distancing to wear a mask or a face covering, which I think is important. I have to say that I've been pretty impressed with how Americans are following these guidelines; it's been encouraging to me. I think it' s also the reason why you can see in some places the rate of infections is starting to go down, which is a good sign. But we must be very cautious about moving too quickly where infection may come back, and that's the challenge”.

TNH: Can we compare the economic impact of the pandemic with the crisis of 2008?

JS: I do think there's some comparison although I think that this situation is worse. The statistics and data that we’re going to see will show that the impact on GDP and growth is going to be more severe than what we experienced in 2008. The second thing is that getting back to a normal situation is much more complicated because you' re dealing with this health crisis. The situation in 2008 was severe, it took a lot of government support and rescue to bring the economy forward. But you didn't have a situation where all the restaurants were closed, where tens of millions of people were losing their jobs, where whole industries like the airline and the cruise and the hospitality industry are being shut down and nobody has any clear sense of when they will be able to restart. If you look at it that way, the potential impact is much more severe.

There's another similarity that you see in both instances. In 2008 there were concerns on the part of the public that some of the rescue packages and assistance were going to the most influential people in society and weren't necessarily getting to the average person out there in the economy. We learned some lessons about that, where there weren't enough strings attached, there wasn't enough accountability for some of the bailouts that occurred in 2008-2009, so in the first CARES Act that we passed this time, we put in place some significant accountability measures; oversight panels and accountability commissions, because I think the public understands the need to put billions and billions of dollars on taxpayer assistance out there but they want to feel confident that it's going to go to the people who really need it. It' s our responsibility to make sure that the moment that it is being spent, it is being spent in a way that's sensible and has integrity to it.

TNH: For the General Election on November 3, are mail ballots and early voting going to work?

JS: With some of these elections that have been postponed, I’d like to think that the Greeks, because of our pride about being the oldest democracy of the world, are showing special interest and want to ensure that our democracy is strong. We have to ensure that in November we are able to conduct a safe election. That means we should create more opportunities for people to vote using the mail, but at the same time we need more early voting, and we need to make sure that on election day there are still some safe in-person opportunities for people to go to the polls, because there are certain people out there that may not be able to access a mail ballot as easily but they still would want to cast their vote and be counted. We need to start anticipating what we need to do in terms of putting resources behind the effort, ensuring that we have a safe, secure election and that we’re as prepared as we can possibly be, because in a democracy voting is an essential activity. We have to make sure that we preserve everybody's opportunity to vote.


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