Ed Yong’s incredible perimortem on How the Pandemic Defeated America
today at 3:03 pm
Ed Yong at The Atlantic has published an incredible piece on the pandemic, which I highly recommend reading in full. He provides an excellent overview of how we got here.
The coronavirus found, exploited, and widened every inequity that the U.S. had to offer. Elderly people, already pushed to the fringes of society, were treated as acceptable losses. Women were more likely to lose jobs than men, and also shouldered extra burdens of child care and domestic work, while facing rising rates of domestic violence. In half of the states, people with dementia and intellectual disabilities faced policies that threatened to deny them access to lifesaving ventilators. Thousands of people endured months of COVID‑19 symptoms that resembled those of chronic postviral illnesses, only to be told that their devastating symptoms were in their head. Latinos were three times as likely to be infected as white people. Asian Americans faced racist abuse. Far from being a “great equalizer,” the pandemic fell unevenly upon the U.S., taking advantage of injustices that had been brewing throughout the nation’s history.
Additionally, Yong touches on this, but the one factor that I can’t seem to get over: the continual exalting of American individualism over collective health, safety, and livelihood. It applies to guns. Education. Healthcare. Climate change. Public Health. Pandemics. To preserve the “freedoms” of an insistent few, America sacrificed the ability to truly lock down and/or contact-trace —both of which have proven key to countries that were able to control the spread.
There was a twitter thread I read a while ago about how Taiwan handles a passenger arriving from the US. The writer described in detail how she had to provide a phone number and address on arrival and was contacted daily during a two-week quarantine, with in-person spot-checks an option on a daily basis as well. Americans would never stand for this. But other countries quickly figured out that, while the invasion of privacy and space is very reaching, it is necessary to defeat such a highly infectious and debilitating virus. The threat of mass death/suffering proved much worse than the individual’s momentary loss of privacy. In the States, pure selfishness precludes this approach. There was absolutely no messaging from the top that we are all in this together, that we will get through this together. This attitude is all reflected in the mask debacle here, too. Asian mask culture has always been about individuals inconveniencing themselves to protect others. Meanwhile in America, this piece of cloth has been demonized by some as a violation of personal freedom.
Instead by providing effectively no top-down pandemic leadership (Dr. Fauci is an exception, but he lacks policy/enforcement capability), states, counties, cities, hospitals, schools…all the way down to individuals were left to DIY everything from equipment procurement to mask enforcement. And so the haphazard, inconsistent responses led us to the mess we have today. Trump actually did try to unite the country against a common enemy, only it wasn’t against the virus. It was to vilify China and endanger Asian Americans through his deliberate, inflammatory word choices of the China Virus and Wu Flu.
Add to this Americans’ distrust in the government, the wild media coverage of facts/alternative facts/conspiracies, election year chicanery, chronic under-investment in public health/social safety nets, a complete failure of White House leadership… all of it is in the article. It’s unsettling, disheartening, and frankly, it’s also bizarre to have this level of understanding of a current, live-action failure. Usually we get this kind of post-game analysis post-game. And yet here we are, live-streaming a series of unforced errors that may lead to our own actual, physical demise. That’s not really my worry though—my real worry is that after we do get through all of this, nothing substantive will have changed for the better.
COVID‑19 is an assault on America’s body, and a referendum on the ideas that animate its culture. Recovery is possible, but it demands radical introspection. America would be wise to help reverse the ruination of the natural world, a process that continues to shunt animal diseases into human bodies. It should strive to prevent sickness instead of profiting from it. It should build a health-care system that prizes resilience over brittle efficiency, and an information system that favors light over heat. It should rebuild its international alliances, its social safety net, and its trust in empiricism. It should address the health inequities that flow from its history. Not least, it should elect leaders with sound judgment, high character, and respect for science, logic, and reason.
Will we pursue the “radical introspection” Yong’s piece calls for? I truly don’t know. It would have been so interesting if covid had struck a few months earlier, i.e. before the Democratic primary settled on Joe Biden. All our systemic, chronic problems would have been illuminated for the masses in the worst possible way, which would have, in turn, highlighted the need for “radical introspection” and meaningful change. Perhaps then Joe Biden’s status quo and “return to (a false sense of) normalcy” would have been quickly dismissed as inadequate, in favor of a much-needed overhaul of the institutions that Yong identifies.
For the next five months, things will almost certainly only get worse. And the most frustrating thing is knowing that Trump could tomorrow just change his tune and make things better—people will listen—and knowing that he won’t. At this point, it feels like criminal negligence, but I can’t tell if it’s due to willful ignorance, denial, or ego.
No one should be shocked that a liar who has made almost 20,000 false or misleading claims during his presidency would lie about whether the U.S. had the pandemic under control; that a racist who gave birth to birtherism would do little to stop a virus that was disproportionately killing Black people; that a xenophobe who presided over the creation of new immigrant-detention centers would order meatpacking plants with a substantial immigrant workforce to remain open; that a cruel man devoid of empathy would fail to calm fearful citizens; that a narcissist who cannot stand to be upstaged would refuse to tap the deep well of experts at his disposal; that a scion of nepotism would hand control of a shadow coronavirus task force to his unqualified son-in-law; that an armchair polymath would claim to have a “natural ability” at medicine and display it by wondering out loud about the curative potential of injecting disinfectant; that an egotist incapable of admitting failure would try to distract from his greatest one by blaming China, defunding the WHO, and promoting miracle drugs; or that a president who has been shielded by his party from any shred of accountability would say, when asked about the lack of testing, “I don’t take any responsibility at all.”