It’s pretty clear from just this graph that the United States is performing less well than other major countries in confronting the virus. We are indeed failing: new cases and deaths continue to rise exponentially here, while other major countries either have flattened the curve (China, Italy, Germany) or are seeing a slower rate of increase. The deeper you dive into the data, the worse it looks. We have made America great: the greatest flop on the face of the earth.
Several points of failure—each compounding the others—have brought us to this pass.
The first inflection point was back in December and January, when the epidemic was getting started in China. The World Health Organization developed a test for the infection that could be administered to masses of people to enable tracking who had the disease and who they had contact with. Most countries adopted it; the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) thought (not unreasonably) that they could do better. They declined to adopt the WHO test, but then suffered delays in developing their own test and mass-producing it. The result was that we lacked the capacity for mass testing in the critical early stages of the pandemic. That allowed the disease to become entrenched, and reduced us to “flying blind,” having no idea who actually had the disease, having to resort to prophylactic measures such as social distancing. The most successful countries, like South Korea, used social distancing aggressively, but they also used testing at a much higher rate.
The various federal agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), whose mission it was to anticipate such needs, had simply failed to imagine such a nationwide pandemic.
The second inflection point was that when it became clear that the virus was established and growing. Informed projections indicated exponential growth that would likely overwhelm many hospitals. It also became clear that nobody had enough surgical masks and other protective equipment, nobody had enough respirators to meet the projected need. The various federal agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), whose mission it was to anticipate such needs, had simply failed to imagine such a nationwide pandemic. Hurricanes and tornadoes they could manage, but COVID19 was beyond their ken.
Both these points of failure were magnified by uncertain, vacillating leadership from the top. President Trump tried for two months, against scientific advice, to minimize the risk and avoid taking serious steps to contain the outbreak. For weeks he resisted using his authority to require private companies to produce needed supplies such as respirators. Where the disease was already a pressing threat, governors and local authorities took independent steps to control it by pressing people to stay home and maintain social distancing, and by ordering the shutdown of nonessential businesses. The resultant massive increase in unemployment led the president to float the idea that the economic damage was worse than the disease itself. Only within the last couple of days has the president finally accepted scientific advice that controlling the virus must take precedence over rescuing the economy.
Thus we clearly have massive failure by the federal government to adequately protect the public health. That in turn has opened us up to obscene profiteering by private enterprises seeking to corner the market on vital supplies in order to profit massively from the desperate need for masks, gowns, respirators: the list goes on. And our whole system of private medical insurance is in crisis as millions of workers are laid off and lose their coverage.
In short, the government can’t protect us, and private enterprise, given the opportunity, will exploit us.
We can learn from this calamity.
- The first lesson is that decades of delegitimizing and defunding government agencies has in fact made them less capable than they should be, less competent than they used to be. We need to strengthen agencies such as the CDC, not cut their budgets and still expect them to perform. We need effective government to do for us what nobody individually can do for themselves, and what private businesses can’t make a profit on.
- The second lesson: the American health care system cannot handle such an emergency. We need more effective disaster planning at the federal level, including federal procurement and dispensing of essential supplies. Our system of private insurance through employers is not ready for an epoch of mass unemployment. We are going to arrive at Medicare for All or something similar, because there is no alternative.
- The third lesson: the massive wave of deregulation of the American economy since Reagan—or even Carter—has critically weakened the government’s ability to assure that private businesses serve the public interest. This capability must be restored, to stop profiteers from exploiting our adversity.
We can remake our country for the better.