The United States Will Learn Nothing From the Pandemic

It’s the country’s biggest crisis in decades—and all signs suggest Americans will absorb all the wrong lessons from it.

Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci and others arrive for the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus in the White House in Washington on April 22.
Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci and others arrive for the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus in the White House in Washington on April 22. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

If there is anything Americans have learned since 9/11, it is to be deeply skeptical of leaders who begin a sentence with: “If we have learned anything from the attacks on 9/11.” The assertion that follows is rarely informed by any actual factual lessons on the causes and consequences of those catastrophic attacks. Rather, “9/11” is typically employed to justify any policy the leader preferred in the first place—often increased military spending, expansive surveillance of citizens, torture of terrorist suspects, ramped-up airstrikes, or indefinite troop deployments.’

The inability for most political and military leaders to sincerely learn from the national crisis 19 years ago is relevant for how the United States chooses to learn from the slowly unfolding COVID-19 pandemic. With an estimated nearly 2 million confirmed cases, 110,000 fatalities, and widespread societal and economic disruption, the virus offers a focusing event from which political leaders and government officials can have a (roughly) shared understanding of what happened, why it happened, who is accountable, and how can it be avoided.

The objectives going forward should be to capture the key findings and ensure that they are learned, remembered, and then utilized in developing policies into the future. If the United States collectively fails to do this regarding its latest crisis, “COVID-19” will rhetorically become another “9/11”—a hollow justification for anything and everything, no matter how unrelated, unethical, or costly. The suffering experienced by the millions of casualties and sacrifices made by tens of millions of health care professionals will be in vain and forgotten, offering little guidance on America’s thinking and policies in the future.

Yet there will be tremendous challenges to the nation’s collective learning due to the unique nature of the pandemic. In the present moment, all Americans to varying degrees are living in real time with the political, economic, societal, and personal impacts of COVID-19. They listen to government briefings to find out about business openings, read the news for any reports of progress on cocktail treatments or miracle vaccines, and monitor the trends in infection rates and deaths across the country. The phenomenon of COVID-19 surrounds them and their hopes and expectations for the future.

This national crisis will likely dissipate and recede from collective memory faster than one would expect. By comparison, even the most basic facts related to 9/11 were quickly forgotten: Within three years, 1 in 5 Americans surveyed could not recall how many civilian aircraft were involved (it was four); within six, 41 percent contended that Saddam Hussein “was directly involved in planning, financing, or carrying out” the attacks (he was not); and in 2019, 23 percent strongly or somewhat believed “in the conspiracy theory that 9/11 was an inside job” (it was not). Large numbers of adults forgot, misremembered, or—fueled by slick YouTube videos or a general distrust of government—adapted wholly new and false beliefs about the catastrophe.

While 9/11 was a one-day event with unimaginable imagery and emotional intensity, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a half-year gradually emerging experience that has affected Americans very differently, at different times, and in different geographic locations. The former was a flashbulb event that became (somewhat) etched in people’s minds, the latter an invisible menace that ebbs and flows, in part, based on factors over which people have limited control—such as whether they are required to work in close proximity to co-workers or customers.

In addition, while several celebrities and public figures have announced their infections, most of them have thankfully recovered—as is true for the vast majority of people infected. But there is no “face” for COVID-19 victims, and fully 42 percent of all deaths have occurred far away from the spotlight, in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. This matters because individual stories imprint deeper on people’s memories, and we have very few of them and even fewer memorable sounds or images of their final moments. Whereas 9/11 is a date leaders of both parties pledge to never forget, COVID-19 could become a partisan argument of selective, faceless statistics.

For all these reasons, it is likely that the country will forget or misremember COVID-19 even faster and to a far greater degree than they have 9/11. Unfortunately, this will enable politicians and government officials even wider latitude to deploy “COVID-19” thoughtlessly in defense of completely unrelated policies and programs. We already see this with the Trump administration’s decision to prohibit lawful immigration from Canada or Mexico—two countries with far lower per capita COVID-19 infection rates than the United States. White House officials had championed this extreme border sealing long before the outbreak of the pandemic; now they have used the fear-based argument to authorize its implementation.

There are two practical ways that the United States can learn from COVID-19 and ensure its lessons are remembered over time. First, President Donald Trump must be defeated in November. As I wrote in my last column: Once Trump “believes absolutely anything—no matter how poorly thought-out, ill-informed, or inaccurate—he remains completely anchored to that initial impression or judgment.” Even worse, his initial impressions are adopted and promulgated by every advisor and cabinet member. Because Trump has decided he is completely blameless for COVID-19, in a second term his administration—and by extension all serving Republicans—will refuse to cooperate faithfully with any investigation. Since Trump cannot learn, America will not learn if he is reelected president.

Second, Joe Biden, if elected and on entering office, must publicly endorse an authentically bipartisan commission that is allowed to study, compile, and present all of the relevant facts surrounding COVID-19. This will require ruthlessly evaluating the public health records of previous administrations—much as the 9/11 Commission correctly apportioned blame for the terrorist attacks on every president dating to Ronald Reagan. A President Biden will have to endorse the key findings, acknowledge the shortcomings that occurred when he was vice president, and work with Congress to pass legislation and authorize funding based on the commission’s recommendations, in order to reduce the probability of government inaction in the face of future mass outbreaks.

Either way, whether it succeeds or fails, how the United States remembers this national crisis will be hugely consequential. The shared remembrance it arrives at will inform who Americans are and what they permit their leaders to do, for better or worse.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.