Editorial: The U.S. Response to the Coronavirus Shows a Nation that Was Already Unwell

America has long taken for granted, if somewhat arrogantly, that it was special; exceptional; that other countries would always look to America as a world leader. Now the world is not looking to us, it’s standing at a safe distance and looking at us, dropping its collective jaw as it witnesses our colossal failure in our response to the coronavirus pandemic.

As a country, we’ve taken for granted, too, that things would always turn out well for us in the end; that we could somehow fix things if they went too far wrong. The election of our current president, however, has taken us into new and unfamiliar territory.

A certain number of Americans were, and are, avid Trump supporters who have shown that they will support him and make excuses for him, no matter what. Another group of Americans, however, didn’t necessarily want Trump as president, but were more certain they couldn’t stomach Hillary Clinton. “Let’s give Trump a try,” they said. They were ready for “something different.” Others who found both candidates unpalatable either wrote in a candidate, or didn’t bother to vote at all. If Trump didn’t work out very well, many told themselves, we’d bounce back as a country and elect someone else in four years.

Our casual belief that America would always right itself has made us blind to the idea that no country’s ability to bounce back lasts forever if taken for granted. We may have been a world leader for decades, and our allies may have been staunch, but under Donald Trump, the weight-bearing walls of our place in the world have been whittled down; the floor is beginning to sag, and now it has a real possibility of falling in.

We were horrified when Donald Trump began to systematically roll back Obama-era protections and alliances for the environment and for public health. When he talked of pulling out of global agreements, we were disgusted. We stared at the news in disbelief when we saw him cozy up to the world’s despots and mock the leaders of our nation’s allies. It angered and frustrated us when he called for violent military responses to peaceful demonstrations. We gasped when he pardoned his corrupt cronies. And when he slithered out of removal from office during the impeachment proceedings, he demonstrated what he and his enablers believed to be true: that he was above the law. We found it chilling.

Over and over, Donald Trump has demonstrated his incompetence, his corruptness, his penchant for telling lies (the Washington Post has documented 20,000 of them to date since he took office), his authoritarian aspirations, and his belief that the law doesn’t apply to him. He has caused us to question his mental and physical fitness for office, even after we’d acknowledged the futility of questioning his moral fitness. The world has watched it all.

As it turns out, in order to navigate and survive a global crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, a country must have a leader who eschews those qualities that are all abundant in Donald Trump. The measure of a great nation is not that it is the loudest in the room, the biggest bully, the one that cozies up to despots, the one that pulls out of agreements, or the one that tries to keep others out. And the measure is certainly not that it places its people in peril by downplaying a pandemic or blaming other nations. Nevertheless, we have Donald Trump.

Each successive crisis, drama, and scandal since Trump took office has been and ever-increasing cause for concern. The coronavirus pandemic, however, is the culmination of all that has or that could possibly go wrong in a country. It underscores racial and economic inequity, an inadequate and poorly managed healthcare system, corruption of leaders, mistrust of authority, denial of science, mismanagement of funding, and incompetence of leadership.

Our case count rises daily by record numbers. As of July 20, we have almost 4 million cases and 140,000 deaths. Yet our administration and its loyalists continue to respond as if it were nothing more than a political game.

Kenyan human rights and anti-corruption attorney Maina Kiai, who previously worked for the United Nations, says, “A lot of people in Kenya, in Africa, have been quite shocked at how the United States has been dealing with this pandemic…the fact that it has elevated politics before life, before science, and that this is a response that you would expect from…almost a third world country. The lack of leadership at the national level, and the fact that things are going from bad to worse rather than improving, and so the luster, the sparkle, that the United States has been for so many people has faded in a very dramatic way.”

In countries where the numbers of cases and deaths have fallen in recent weeks, it is a result of their populations following the rules of lockdowns, business shutdowns, mask-wearing, social distancing, and other safety measures. These countries’ populations have largely understood the importance of helping protect the well-being of their fellow humans, and how that reaches all aspects of a society, including the economy.

Trump, in keeping with his penchant for sowing divisiveness, has instead planted suspicion and paranoia in the heads of his base, so that they see any caution toward COVID-19 as a Democrat plot against Trump, and any safety guidelines (such as mask-wearing) as “ineffective” at best, and “tyranny” at worst. Response to the virus has become a demonstration of political loyalty or disloyalty. Trump’s own refusal to wear a mask has spoken more loudly to his base than any recommendations from health experts.

At the same time that he has caused a great divide among Americans over the coronavirus, Trump has shown indifference to the virus’ seriousness. He has said numerous times that it would “just disappear” on its own; that it was no worse than the flu; that the country was doing “really well” at managing its spread. He wants churches and schools and rallies to go on as if America’s cases weren’t growing exponentially, and as if we hadn’t lost more than 140,000 Americans to the virus.

According to public health experts, COVID-19 is nowhere near done with us yet. Trump, however, talks of windmills and dishwashers, plays golf, and when asked, reasserts how “well” our country is doing in its battle against the virus.

Other countries see plainly how well we’re not doing. They have begun to question whether we’ve simply become resigned to the rising number of cases and the tragic loss of human life.

A public news website in Germany had this recent headline: “Has the U.S. given up its fight against coronavirus?”

A headline in Switzerland’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper reads, “U.S. increasingly accepts rising covid-19 numbers.”

If Donald Trump’s divisiveness, incompetence, and indifference weren’t dangerous enough, the fact that his administration has begun to take on an authoritarian tone regarding its response to the virus should be chilling.

The Trump administration has mandated that hospitals send all COVID-19 related data directly to the Trump administration, bypassing the usual transmission to the CDC. Trump has also threatened to cut off federal funding to schools that don’t re-open to hold classes on-site this fall, despite CDC guidelines for safely reopening. The White House coronavirus task force hasn’t briefed the public since April, and Donald Trump and the White House have taken to overriding any information or recommendations from health and science experts if they don’t align with Trump’s narrative around the virus.

“Like many other aspects of our country, the CDC’s ability to function well is being severely handicapped by the interference coming from the White House,” said Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch. “All of us in public health very much hope that this is not a permanent condition of the CDC.”

Outside the U.S., some fear our situation here will be difficult to reverse. Following the CDC’s botching of the early testing effort, Siouxsie Wiles, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, said “I’ve always thought of the CDC as a reliable and trusted source of information. Not anymore.”

Everything is not going to turn out all right for us in the world if Donald Trump and his loyalists continue to bulldoze any effective response to COVID-19. The coronavirus is not going to disappear “like a miracle,” as Donald Trump hopes it will. We may soon have an effective vaccine, but in the meantime, the physical, spiritual, and moral damage done by Trump’s response (or lack thereof) to the coronavirus pandemic has put the U.S. on a trajectory that could leave us unwell — and no longer exceptional— as a nation for a very long time.

What the U.S. coronavirus response says about American exceptionalism |
PBS NewHour [2020-07-08]

Zuckerberg blames Trump for coronavirus hitting US ‘significantly worse’ than other countries | The Sun [2020-07-17]

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