How did it come to this? A virus a thousand times smaller than a dust mote has humbled and humiliated the planet’s most powerful nation. America has failed to protect its people, leaving them with illness and financial ruin. It has lost its status as a global leader. It has careened between inaction and ineptitude. The breadth and magnitude of its errors are difficult, in the moment, to truly fathom.
[T]he new coronavirus behind the disease COVID‑19—infected 10 million people around the world and killed about half a million. But few countries have been as severely hit as the United States, which has just 4 percent of the world’s population but a quarter of its confirmed COVID‑19 cases and deaths. These numbers are estimates. The actual toll, though undoubtedly higher, is unknown, because the richest country in the world still lacks sufficient testing to accurately count its sick citizens.
Despite ample warning, the U.S. squandered every possible opportunity to control the coronavirus. And despite its considerable advantages—immense resources, biomedical might, scientific expertise—it floundered. While countries as different as South Korea, Thailand, Iceland, Slovakia, and Australia acted decisively to bend the curve of infections downward, the U.S. achieved merely a plateau in the spring, which changed to an appalling upward slope in the summer. “The U.S. fundamentally failed in ways that were worse than I ever could have imagined,” Julia Marcus, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, told me.
Since the pandemic began, I have spoken with more than 100 experts in a variety of fields. I’ve learned that almost everything that went wrong with America’s response to the pandemic was predictable and preventable. A sluggish response by a government denuded of expertise allowed the coronavirus to gain a foothold. Chronic underfunding of public health neutered the nation’s ability to prevent the pathogen’s spread. A bloated, inefficient health-care system left hospitals ill-prepared for the ensuing wave of sickness.
The decades-long process of shredding the nation’s social safety net forced millions of essential workers in low-paying jobs to risk their life for their livelihood. The same social-media platforms that sowed partisanship and misinformation during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa and the 2016 U.S. election became vectors for conspiracy theories during the 2020 pandemic.
In 2018, I wrote an article for The Atlantic arguing that the U.S. was not ready for a pandemic, and sounded warnings about the fragility of the nation’s health-care system and the slow process of creating a vaccine. But the COVID‑19 debacle has also touched—and implicated—nearly every other facet of American society: its shortsighted leadership, its disregard for expertise, its racial inequities, its social-media culture, and its fealty to a dangerous strain of individualism.
To avert another catastrophe, the U.S. needs to grapple with all the ways normal failed us. It needs a full accounting of every recent misstep and foundational sin, every unattended weakness and unheeded warning, every festering wound and reopened scar.
A pandemic can be prevented in two ways: Stop an infection from ever arising, or stop an infection from becoming thousands more. The first way is likely impossible. There are simply too many viruses and too many animals that harbor them.
Curtailing those viruses after they spill over is more feasible, but requires knowledge, transparency, and decisiveness that were lacking in 2020. . . . The United States has correctly castigated China for its duplicity and the WHO for its laxity—but the U.S. has also failed the international community. Under
PresidentDonald Trump, the U.S. has withdrawn from several international partnerships and antagonized its allies. It has a seat on the WHO’s executive board, but left that position empty for more than two years, only filling it this May, when the pandemic was in full swing. Since 2017, Trump has pulled more than 30 staffers out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s office in China, who could have warned about the spreading coronavirus. Last July, he defunded an American epidemiologist embedded within China’s CDC. America First was America oblivious.
Even after warnings reached the U.S., they fell on the wrong ears. Since before his election, Trump has cavalierly dismissed expertise and evidence. He filled his administration with inexperienced newcomers, while depicting career civil servants as part of a “deep state.” In 2018, he dismantled an office that had been assembled specifically to prepare for nascent pandemics. American intelligence agencies warned about the coronavirus threat in January, but Trump habitually disregards intelligence briefings. The secretary of health and human services, Alex Azar, offered similar counsel, and was twice ignored.
Trump could have spent those crucial early weeks mass-producing tests to detect the virus, asking companies to manufacture protective equipment and ventilators, and otherwise steeling the nation for the worst. Instead, he focused on the border.
Travel bans make intuitive sense, because travel obviously enables the spread of a virus. . . . Trump’s included numerous exceptions, and allowed tens of thousands of people to enter from China. Ironically, they create travel: When Trump later announced a ban on flights from continental Europe, a surge of travelers packed America’s airports in a rush to beat the incoming restrictions. Travel bans may sometimes work for remote island nations, but in general they can only delay the spread of an epidemic—not stop it.
This was predictable. A president who is fixated on an ineffectual border wall, and has portrayed asylum seekers as vectors of disease, was always going to reach for travel bans as a first resort. And Americans who bought into his rhetoric of xenophobia and isolationism were going to be especially susceptible to thinking that simple entry controls were a panacea.
And so the U.S. wasted its best chance of restraining COVID‑19. Although the disease first arrived in the U.S. in mid-January, genetic evidence shows that the specific viruses that triggered the first big outbreaks, in Washington State, didn’t land until mid-February. The country could have used that time to prepare. Instead, Trump, who had spent his entire presidency learning that he could say whatever he wanted without consequence, assured Americans that “the coronavirus is very much under control,” and “like a miracle, it will disappear.” With impunity, Trump lied. With impunity, the virus spread.
It’s hard to overstate how thoroughly the testing debacle incapacitated the U.S. People with debilitating symptoms couldn’t find out what was wrong with them. Health officials couldn’t cut off chains of transmission by identifying people who were sick and asking them to isolate themselves.
Before the pandemic, three in four nursing homes were understaffed, and four in five had recently been cited for failures in infection control. The Trump administration’s policies have exacerbated the problem by reducing the influx of immigrants, who make up a quarter of long-term caregivers.
America’s neglect of nursing homes and prisons, its sick buildings, and its botched deployment of tests are all indicative of its problematic attitude toward health: “Get hospitals ready and wait for sick people to show,” as Sheila Davis, the CEO of the nonprofit Partners in Health, puts it. “Especially in the beginning, we catered our entire [COVID‑19] response to the 20 percent of people who required hospitalization, rather than preventing transmission in the community.”
At the end of the 20th century, public-health improvements meant that Americans were living an average of 30 years longer than they were at the start of it. . . . . these achievements brought complacency. “As public health did its job, it became a target” of budget cuts, says Lori Freeman, the CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
Today, the U.S. spends just 2.5 percent of its gigantic health-care budget on public health. Underfunded health departments were already struggling to deal with opioid addiction, climbing obesity rates, contaminated water, and easily preventable diseases. Last year saw the most measles cases since 1992.
Compared with the average wealthy nation, America spends nearly twice as much of its national wealth on health care, about a quarter of which is wasted on inefficient care, unnecessary treatments, and administrative chicanery. The U.S. gets little bang for its exorbitant buck. It has the lowest life-expectancy rate of comparable countries, the highest rates of chronic disease, and the fewest doctors per person. This profit-driven system has scant incentive to invest in spare beds, stockpiled supplies, peacetime drills, and layered contingency plans—the essence of pandemic preparedness.
The federal government could have mitigated those problems by buying supplies at economies of scale and distributing them according to need. Instead, in March, Trump told America’s governors to “try getting it yourselves.” As usual, health care was a matter of capitalism and connections. In New York, rich hospitals bought their way out of their protective-equipment shortfall, while neighbors in poorer, D
During a pandemic, leaders must rally the public, tell the truth, and speak clearly and consistently. Instead, Trump repeatedly contradicted public-health experts, his scientific advisers, and himself. He said that “nobody ever thought a thing like [the pandemic] could happen” and also that he “felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” Both statements cannot be true at the same time, and in fact neither is true.
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.”