The U.S. Navy Blue Angels fly over the Delaware River between Camden, NJ and Philadelphia, PA on Tuesday, April 28, 2020. Chris LaChall, Courier-Post via USA TODAY Network/REUTERS

“America Strong” military flights over some of the cities hardest hit by COVID-19 offered by the Trump administration as “tribute” to beleaguered healthcare and essential workers have been met with outrage and ridicule.

“Instead of spending $60,000 per flight hour on a showy attempt at solidarity, please spend that money housing homeless and incarcerated people in safe places where they can be socially distanced,” said Kate Dunn, a registered nurse in Baltimore. “For me, that is what actual support and solidarity would look like. And I would sleep better at night knowing my patients were at less risk.”

The squadrons flew over cities including New York and San Diego last week, and flew over Baltimore, Washington, DC, and Atlanta on Saturday, May 2.

The Blue Angel and Thunderbird planes cost at least $18 million each, and the Washington Post estimates $60,000 in fuel is burned to fly a squadron for one hour. “We’re excited to fly over cities across America as our way of saying thanks to the healthcare workers, first responders, and all the people who selflessly run into the breach working to keep America strong,” Air Force Gen. Dave Goldfein and Navy Adm. Michael Gilday said in a press release.

The U.S. spends more on its military than Germany, the UK, France, Russia, China, India, and Saudi Arabia combined.

As of May 1, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security reported over one million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, including 63,019 deaths, though totals are likely higher. At least 26 million people—or one in seven workers—have filed for unemployment. An estimated 12.7 million Americans have lost employer-based health insurance.

Johns Hopkins recently laid off 190 mostly-Black cafeteria workers. One day before the flyovers, many took part in a national May Day action to demand adequate pay and safe working conditions for essential workers, with calls for boycotts of online retailers, along with rent strikes.

“I think every person in this country, with minimal effort, could think of at least one way that money would have been better spent,” said Baltimore certified nurse-midwife Kristen Janiszewski.

In Baltimore, many frustrated residents observed the flight paths for the planes covered the county and the predominantly white and wealthy areas of the city, and bypassed Black neighborhoods in East and West Baltimore (named the “White L” and “Black Butterfly” by professor Lawrence Brown), emphasizing the city’s deep racial segregation, and disparities in health and economic outcomes that come with it.

COVID-19 has amplified existing racial inequities, with African Americans disportionately impacted by the disease and as a result of the disease economically. On the same day the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds flew over Baltimore’s predominantly white areas, the city’s billionaire-funded surveillance plane—the subject of years of scandal and a recent ACLU lawsuit—was reintroduced. Its flight patterns over the past few days indicate it will be flying over East and West Baltimore.

Meanwhile, nurses across the country are protesting dire shortages of masks and other basic personal protective equipment (PPE) during the COVID-19 pandemic that has pushed the nation’s profit-driven healthcare system to the breaking point.

“Wouldn’t these flyover funds be a better tribute if they were spent instead on COVID-19 PPE, tests, and food/basic supplies for those in need?” said Lindasay Beane, DrPH.

Reusing masks can cause contamination, and nurses say they fear spreading COVID-19 to their patients or families.

“I would rather have that money spent on PPE [than “America Strong”] so I don’t have to wear the same surgical mask for multiple shifts,” a Baltimore-area nurse who spoke on the condition of anonymity said. “At my institution people are wearing surgical masks in patient care areas for as long as two weeks straight.”

The inherent militarism of these flyovers is also of concern.

“The last thing I want to see—and I know plenty of healthcare workers who feel the same way—is a symbol of death and destruction in the midst of such a deadly pandemic,” said former U.S. Army Ranger and author Rory Fanning.

The Defense Department says the flights fulfil training requirements for the pilots, and come at “no additional cost to taxpayers.” The Pentagon’s 2019 budget totaled $738 billion, which is more than the total allocated that year for every domestic program combined.

“The Trump administration should be spending every second and cent figuring out how to supply immediate support to those impacted by the COVID-19 crisis,” Fanning said.

In contrast to these flyovers, on May 2-3, progressive activist Jordan Uhl organized a virtual fundraiser for Baltimore-based Healthcare for the Homeless, a nonprofit that provides housing, support, and healthcare services to people experiencing homelessness.

“It’s a grim irony that, in the richest country in the world, the government is focusing on hollow displays of patriotism and militaristic theatrics instead of actually helping people who are suffering,” Uhl said. “Baltimore is a city that has been directly criticized by this administration—calling it a ‘rodent infested mess’—but his solution to helping it during a time of need is flying planes overhead.”

Uhl’s Fortnite stream raised over $6,000.

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.