We’re losing the war on coronavirus — and our country. Throughout these first months of bad news about the Covid-19 pandemic, I’ve held out hope that we would rise to the occasion, get a grip on the epidemic. Other countries have done it. Why not us?
But April was the month I gave up that hope. Yes, the number of hospitalizations in New York City seems to be edging down, and yes, social distancing seems to be having an effect there and elsewhere around the U.S. Progress is happening as a patchwork for sure. But the bottom fell out of all this starting a few weeks ago.
The way out of this epidemic in the U.S .has been well articulated now by many different actors. Experts in think tanks on the left and right and governors both Republican and Democrat have sung this four-part mantra in unison: Get the cases down for two weeks or more, scale-up testing, trace contacts of those who test positive and isolate them from those still susceptible to infection. Had this kind of classic approach to public health been the way we’d started this saga, we’d be in better shape today. Now there is only one way forward — and it’s this very same path, even if adopted late in the game. Social distancing can begin to end once we know the contours of what we’re facing out there — the scale and scope of lingering infections in the community — otherwise, we’re flying blind.
But that’s not how we’re doing things. When President Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!”, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” on Friday, April 17, the die was cast: It was a clarion call to his supporters to resist, with arms, the social distancing that would be necessary. This was followed by the less spectacular though far more fateful pronouncements from the White House on testing for SARS-CoV-2. Despite the pleas for help scaling up testing from governors around the country, even Trump’s science advisors began to suggest the entreaties were overblown and we had all the testing capacity we needed to start opening up the economy in the near future.
We are all hoping for a happy ending in what is emerging as one of the greatest challenges this country has ever faced. Things don’t look good.
Georgia. Florida. Texas. Tennessee. All these states began to reopen, while others laid out plans to reopen in the near future and scale back social distancing, without testing in place, regardless of the consequences. On April 30, federal social distancing guidelines expired. The president has no plans to renew them. Instead, those working toward the president’s reelection have been stoking more and more anti-social distancing, pro-coronavirus-spread protests.
You don’t need mathematical models to predict what happens when you relax social distancing before you get the epidemic under control or understand the extent of the problems you face. Doing so will make things worse. No expert will tell you differently.
Except in the United States in 2020, expertise has no role in the response to Covid-19; it’s all about the gut feelings of the man in the White House and his loyalists in Congress and in governors’ mansion across the land. No one treats this as lunacy, recklessness, and self-destructiveness on a national scale. To do that, we’d have to look in the mirror and see the country we’ve become rather than rely on the myths that we live by day by day.
It doesn’t have to be this way: We have the capacity, the know-how, the will to survive this pandemic with far less carnage and death, whether you enumerate it in deaths or in gross domestic product. It’s no moon shot for American industry to scale up testing, from the PCR primers and RNA extraction kits to the test tubes and swabs we need. We have plenty of talented and newly unemployed people who could be recruited to perform the tests, do the contact tracing, help people navigate the practicalities of isolation and quarantine.
Instead, we have governors more loyal to the president than their duties to protect their own constituents opening up their states and exacerbating the epidemic. The virus doesn’t respect state borders, and their actions will undermine not only containment efforts in their own states but across the entire country. Meanwhile, as a bipartisan coalition of governors in other states tries to do the right thing, they face the headwinds of a federal government that has no interest in treating stopping Covid-19 as a national project — and a president who has pinned his political hopes on sowing chaos amid the response to the epidemic.
We are all hoping for a happy ending in what is emerging as one of the greatest challenges this country has ever faced. We’re in the middle of the story now, and things don’t look good for the outcome, for ordinary Americans hoping that this too will pass. Earlier this year, Andrew Slavitt, President Obama’s health care czar, called our inability to respond in a timely and effective manner to this pandemic the greatest U.S. public health failure in a century. A few months later, it looks like a far more grave disaster, an epitaph for a country that let a virus bring it to its knees.