Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine and Health Services, Policy and Practice
Director, Brown Institute for Translational Science
As of last night's debate, more than 7.1 million Americans are known to have been infected with the novel coronavirus, and more than 200,000 have died from COVID-19. Health care workers and other essential workers across the country continue to lack access to adequate testing or personal protective equipment supplies. Only 50% of Americans regularly wear a mask in public, despite ample evidence that universal mask-wearing alone would essentially stop the spread of the virus and would allow our economy to quickly reopen.
My deepest wish is for our country to develop a robust, consistent response to this pandemic. With strong universal messaging about mask-wearing; robust funding for and equitable distribution of PPE, vaccines, and testing; and high-quality collection and analysis of data on the virus's spread, it would be possible to reduce infections and reopen our economy. To date, we have achieved none of the above.
I was therefore dismayed — but not surprised — to hear President Trump continue to make fun of masks and claim that he has done a "phenomenal job" managing COVID-19 during the debate. I was enthused by Vice President Biden's support for funding and a strong plan; I only wish we had had a chance to hear more about his plan's details.
The one correct statement by President Trump regarding the virus was his allegation that we do not fully know the death counts in other countries, such as Russia and India. I would add that although we are relatively confident in our tracking of U.S. death rates, we do not fully know the extent of U.S. COVID-19 infection and transmission rates due to lack of testing and contact tracing. We also do not fully know who needs PPE. In the place of excellent governmental data collection and presentation, our country has had to rely on non-profit and academic substitutes for data collection. I wish that this issue had been further discussed during the debates.
Moreover, other countries' successes or failures do not relieve us from our obligation to protect our own citizens. As a co-founder of the national non-profit GetUsPPE, I know that we continue to lack millions upon millions of items of PPE across the country. Our schoolchildren, our nurses and our nursing home staff remain inadequately protected from the virus. To be eminently clear: Without production and equitable distribution of masks, gowns and other essential equipment, our country will continue to face unabated spread of the virus. I wish that everyone had the chance to wear "the biggest mask," as Trump said about Biden.
Finally, as a public health professional and practicing emergency physician, I unequivocally believe the integrity and scientific rigor of our government's scientists. I appreciated the short mention of "muzzling" of public health scientists during the debate. I hope that all of us listening will take on the charge to speak up for what is ethical and true.
Professor of Economics
As an economist, I was naturally looking for any hints at details of the candidates' economic policies in last night's debate. Those hints were hard to find. The debate degenerated quickly enough into heckling and trading of insults. Anyone watching hoping to learn more about the candidates' policy ideas came away disappointed.
Absent, for example, was any discussion of trade policy. The closest we came was the moment when Vice President Biden suggested that with President Trump's trade policy — which was supposedly geared toward reducing trade deficits — instead increased the U.S. trade deficit with China. (Whether reducing trade deficits is a good policy goal is another subject entirely.) Trump could have responded that the annual trade deficit with China is actually, according to my reading, roughly about the same as it was when he took office. Biden, in turn, could have pointed out that the overall U.S. trade deficit relative to the rest of the world has increased. Rather than engage in a substantive debate, Trump responded: "China ate your lunch, Joe!" That seems like a representative example of the nature of the debate.
I was also looking for some discussion of tax policy, in light of the recent New York Times exposé revealing that the president paid just $750 in income taxes in 2016 and 2017. Again, I was disappointed. Trump suggested he had only taken advantage of the tax system that legislators like Biden had put in place, and as an aside claimed he has paid "millions and millions" in taxes. (Unlike any of his predecessors, Trump has not released his tax records to substantiate this claim.) Biden, in turn, pointed out that in his four years in office, Trump has cut taxes aggressively on those with the highest incomes and has increased the loopholes on which the very wealthy rely — loopholes Biden said he hopes to shut down.
I had been hoping to see a substantive debate about tax policy, its possible role in shaping income inequality and other issues. After this debate, I am not optimistic about hearing anything intelligent or substantive, on this or any other subjects, in future debates.