America enters ‘new phase’ in Covid-19 crisis
Has the US really been “defeated”? A virus a thousand times smaller than a dust mote has humiliated the planet’s most powerful nation, claims a new essay – and a furious debate has begun.
Trump’s executive orders spark confusion among businesses and state officials as Democrats assail them as unworkable.
Chaos coast to coast as a school year like no other launches.
The two main headlines in the leading US newspapers this morning.
Many Americans are openly confessing to something like shell-shock. Day after day, they are battered by more catastrophic news. And the underlying statistics continue to get worse. At nearly five million infections and 160,000 deaths from Covid-19, the US is the worst hit nation in the world.
But it did not need to come to this, writes the acclaimed science writer Ed Yong in a cover article published last week in the Atlantic magazine. With the right combination of preparation and decisive action, other countries have brought Covid-19 under control.
But, he says, the US has “fundamentally failed” at every turn. Despite unparalleled wealth, resources, and expertise, the nation has been defeated.
Yong argues that it had no excuse to be unprepared. In recent years, a rise in new infectious diseases convinced experts of the inevitability of a global pandemic. But Trump scrapped government plans for an outbreak and removed or ignored experts warning of the impending health crisis.
Countries that successfully controlled the virus acted quickly with public health interventions: social distancing measures, tracking infections, and mass testing. With a healthcare budget twice the size of other wealthy countries, the US could have easily afforded to protect its people.
But only 2.5% of the budget is invested in public health. Despite hugely successful initiatives against infectious diseases in the 20th Century, the US has a culture of complacency and opposition to government interference. Health is treated as a personal responsibility, not a public service.
And the hospitals were not ready, he writes. Many quickly ran out of protective masks and gowns, forcing some medics to improvise with bandanas and bin bags. The fundamental problem is a “profit-driven system” that runs healthcare as a just-in-time business, with no incentive to stockpile or prepare for the long-term.
Yong shows these failings hit the most vulnerable hardest. Over three million Americans don’t have health insurance and two million cannot access clean water. In a racially divided country, this means black and ethnic minorities have borne the brunt of the disease.
Strong, decisive leadership could have rescued the US from this dire situation. But Yong argues Trump has swung wildly between “inaction and ineptitude”, spreading disinformation, ignoring expert advice, and blaming the crisis on his political opponents.
Can it be said that USA has really been “defeated”?
Absolutely, yes, some say. Covid-19 has shown that wealth is no substitute for robust public health policy, good preparation, and clear leadership. With the virus now out of control, Americans face a miserable future of sickness and financial ruin.
Others say, no, the US will pull through. In its short history, the nation has survived wars, economic collapse, and terrorist attacks. Four presidents have been assassinated and countless natural disasters have devastated regions of the country. But, each time, it finds a way out of its troubles and returns stronger than before.
- Has your country defeated the virus?
- How will the USA be different after the Covid-19 pandemic?
- What are the characteristics of a great leader? Make your own list of the right qualities for leadership.
- You are taking over Trump’s job as president of the United States. Write down three short-term and three long-term initiatives to turn the crisis around.
Some People Say...
“America is a nation with many flaws, but hopes so vast that only the cowardly would refuse to acknowledge them.”James A Michener (1907-1997), American author
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that this is not the first time events have threatened to destroy the US. The country was founded in 1776, in the War of Independence against Great Britain – at the time, the world’s most powerful nation. Between 1861 and 1865, it fought a bitter and bloody civil war that came close to breaking up the union. In the 1930s, the Great Depression threw 15 million people out of work and closed half the nation’s banks.
- What do we not know?
- Whether the impact of the pandemic will dwarf these past crises. Although the economic damage is greater than the 2007-8 recession, and the death count far exceeds those lost during the calamitous Vietnam War (1955-1975), optimists expect the economy to recover quickly after the pandemic ends. Pessimists, however, see no end in sight. They warn that outbreaks and lockdowns will continue through the winter until a vaccine is developed.
- Other countries
- Yong argues there isn’t one simple solution to controlling the virus. Countries such as Germany, Japan, and New Zealand “did enough things right” to contain the infections, whilst the US did everything wrong.
- Infectious diseases
- The Sars, Mers and Ebola epidemics accelerated global and local planning for a pandemic. As human activity expands into previously wild spaces, the chance of a deadly infectious disease passing from animals to humans has increased substantially.
- Be about to happen.
- Mass testing
- It took months to get an effective Covid-19 test approved in the US, through a slow and bureaucratic system. Meanwhile, US laboratories were already supplying test kits to Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Senegal.
- Public health improvements extended American lives by an average of 30 years over the course of the century. Vaccines eradicated smallpox and polio and brought down cases of measles, diphtheria, and rubella.
- Government interference
- Anti-vax campaigns in the US oppose compulsory vaccinations. Their opposition is often linked to conspiracy theories and prominent “anti-vaxxers” have spread disinformation online about Covid-19.
- US hospitals depend on global supply chains to provide exactly the right amount of medicine and equipment when it is needed. Efficient and cheap in normal times, these chains were disrupted by the pandemic, leading to shortages of essential supplies.
- Health insurance
- In the US, healthcare is partly paid by employers. Lockdown measures have caused mass unemployment and many Covid-19 survivors now face huge medical bills.
- Racially divided
- Black Americans are twice as likely to die of Covid-19 than white Americans. They are more likely to be “essential workers” or in low-paid work, where they are unable to practise social distancing and protect themselves from the virus.
- Borne the brunt
- Been the most affected by an unpleasant situation.
- Extremely serious or urgent.
- Spreading disinformation
- Trump has made 20,000 false or misleading claims during his presidency. He has recommended an antimalarial drug to treat Covid-19 – causing shortages of the medication for those who need it – and claimed that children have immunity from the virus.