The United States is already feeling the devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. At the time of writing, there are over 4,000 confirmed cases (the true figure is much higher) and more than 70 deaths. But the crisis will become much worse in the weeks and months ahead.
The US is ill prepared for a pandemic. Criticism has been directed at the habitual ethic of “individualism” – people looking out for themselves, getting rich by reselling hand sanitiser, or insisting that mass gatherings such as concerts and sporting events are signs of freedom and national defiance.
But individualism is not an inherent trait; it is a cultivated one, reinforced by decades of political rhetoric that has depicted welfare services such as state-funded healthcare or parental leave as foreign and dangerous to the American way of life. This is why, gripped by a pandemic, Americans believe they can rely on their own gumption and strength of character to get through it all.
But this overlooks a more immediate problem: the deleterious role of Donald Trump and his administration. The list of mistakes is breathtaking. The US did not use the test template approved by the World Health Organization; instead, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created its own. The Food and Drug Administration also prevented academic hospitals from developing their own tests to detect Covid-19 until 29 February, nearly six weeks after the first US case was detected on 19 January.
According to Politico, the administration also refused to test people early and often: Trump believed that the lower the number of known cases, the better his chances of re-election. Trump himself said as much when he explained to reporters that he did not want to have a cruise ship with cases of Covid-19 on board to return to the US because he liked “the numbers being where they are”.
With China’s government downplaying the magnitude of the coronavirus outbreak, and restricting the flow of information from doctors to the general public, and the Iranian regime similarly minimising the fatal risk of the disease, Trump had two current examples of how not to contain a pandemic. But he failed to heed these lessons.
As a consequence, the US has been far too slow in implementing nationwide testing, as well as communicating to people that Covid-19 is a serious problem – instead, Trump has labelled Democratic Party criticism a pernicious invention to try to derail his presidency. If in another country the head of state claimed that a disease tearing through the population was being exaggerated by his enemies to bring him down, Americans would talk about a failed state.
Even now, Trump – who disbanded the White House’s pandemic preparedness team in 2018 – is finding it difficult to tell the nation that we are in the midst of a crisis. “Young people, people of good health, and groups of people, just are not strongly affected,” he said on 15 March. This statement was made on the same day that Dr Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, warned young Americans that, “You are not immune or safe from getting seriously ill.”
In a press conference with CEOs of Walmart and other major American firms on 13 March, Trump, who has come into contact with people known to have tested positive for Covid-19, including Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s communications chief, insisted on shaking people’s hands. And so even as officials, managers and business owners across the country have cancelled parades, postponed public events, shut down schools and bars, and encouraged people to stay at home to slow the spread of infection, there is a large part of the population loyal to Trump that believe that they should not worry about Covid-19. Why would they? Their president told them not to.
On 12 March, when Trump seemed to accept reality, he addressed the nation, referring to this “foreign virus” and announcing that travel and cargo from Europe would be banned. His Department of Homeland Security was later forced to clarify that cargo was not banned and that US citizens could still enter the country.
Trump’s announcement led to panic among American citizens abroad, who rushed back to the US, overwhelming the nation’s airports (Trump has said that there is now medical screening at airports, but on Sunday 15 March, on returning from India, I was not screened while going through customs).
In addition to giving European governments no prior warning of the travel ban, Trump also tried to buy for the US exclusive rights to a possible coronavirus vaccine being trialled by a German firm.
At present, the US is trying to catch up with the rest of the world on testing, travel screenings, social distancing and isolation, as the president continues to misinform the public, undercut experts, and tout how he has improved the economy (although this is now in such a crisis that on 15 March the Federal Reserve cut interest rates to zero).
Trump is not a president doing his best with a bad system and a worsening situation; he is actively making a bad system in a bad situation worse.
In more positive news, the House of Representatives passed a bill that gives paid leave to American workers – or, more accurately, to 20 per cent of them, according to the New York Times. Republicans wanted exemptions for companies with more than 500 workers or fewer than 50 workers, and Democrats agreed. The president is not the only one in Washington, DC proving less than up to the task before him.
Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s new America editor and is the author of “The Influence of Soros” (HarperCollins)
This article appears in the 18 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The final reckoning