Why the United States Can’t Defeat the Coronavirus

For too many Americans, disasters are things that happen to other people, never themselves.

Medical staff treat a COVID-19 patient in Texas
Medical staff treat a patient in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston on Nov. 16. Go Nakamura/Getty Images

As Thanksgiving approaches, some conservatives in the United States are boasting online of the mass gatherings they plan to hold in defiance of social distancing measures. This strange civil disobedience, even as the country’s coronavirus cases and deaths soar, has become a bizarre mark of status for them, as they plan public events that are likely to led to people’s deaths. The denial of facts and science extends to the deathbed, as the South Dakota nurse Jodi Doering told CNN: “People are still looking for something else, and they want a magic answer, and they don’t want to believe that COVID is real. … Their last dying words are, ‘This can’t be happening. It’s not real.’”

The outright denialists are only the crudest representative of an idea that has dominated American (and to some degree, European) responses since the start of the pandemic: This can’t really be happening. As the second wave of the pandemic crashes down, the U.S. government has essentially surrendered: The Republican Party is adamantly anti-lockdown, and the country’s coronavirus task force is advised by a crank the president saw on TV. Usually, this kind of denial of reality is associated with authoritarian states and leaders who don’t need to answer to anyone. But American denialism hasn’t been driven by dictatorship or control of the media—although Donald Trump and Fox News have played a critical part in worsening things. Instead, the primary driver behind America’s current predicament has been the fundamental distrust of government itself—and the deep conviction that disaster is something that happens to other people.

The playbook for control of the coronavirus is, as countries across the Asia-Pacific have shown, simple—and painful. It begins with sharp lockdowns, pioneered by China’s near-total closure of the country for 76 days but also carried out skillfully in New Zealand, Taiwan, Vietnam, and elsewhere. In countries where the virus hasn’t taken a strong foothold, such as Japan and Australia, enforced social distancing, rather than a full lockdown, can work. During that lockdown, economic support has to flow from the government to a frozen private sector, whether through wage subsidies, direct payments, or, as in China, targeted business aid combined with restrictions on layoffs.

The United States never really had a lockdown. Even the stay-at-home orders issued in 43 states in March and April came nowhere close to the level of lockdown imposed in other countries—not least because of the lack of real penalties for violating the rules. In a rare success, though, the combination of direct payments and unemployment insurance kept the U.S. economy afloat.

But it’s the necessary follow-up stages where the United States has truly failed. It’s not just the lack of a centralized test-and-trace program, a necessity for spotting and stamping out future possible outbreaks. Key among these has been a centralized and mandatory system for quarantine and isolation, not just for patients themselves but for those exposed to them. It was this step that crushed the spread of the virus in China and has helped contain it elsewhere. In countries taking the virus seriously, such as Taiwan, Australia, and Israel, entering from abroad means two weeks of monitored observance in a hotel; in the United States, you can simply waltz in and say you intend to quarantine, with no checks or balances.

New York City now offers quarantine facilities for coronavirus sufferers in hotel rooms—on a purely volunteer basis. Centralized isolation is nowhere to be seen, and instead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issues suggestions about confining the infected to a single room—an impossibility in many multigeneration households or in small city apartments. Internal travel rules are flimsy; take Washington, D.C., which has been relatively successful in coronavirus control. Its attempt to impose rules to prevent reinfection by visitors features no enforcement and a myriad of bizarre loopholes: If you’re visiting for less than 24 hours, for instance, that’s fine. Perhaps the virus likes to take a good look around first before it infects people. At every stage, loopholes dominate, a belief that somehow the virus can be cheated of its toll: We’ll keep restaurants open until 10 p.m. but no later! We’ll ban gatherings of more than 15 people! Arbitrary lines are adjusted to avoid necessary realities.

At the heart of these systemic flaws lie two fatal American convictions: The government can’t help, and disasters are things that happen to other people. That first idea is embedded so deep into American life that it becomes self-sustaining. Government departments are underfunded, often deliberately, so the everyday experience of Americans with government services becomes bureaucratic, oppressive, and unpleasant. Meanwhile, the parts of U.S. governance most frequently enforced are those that hit the most vulnerable—such as brutal policing. From crumbling infrastructure to a tax system and a carceral state that target the poor, Americans have ample reason to not trust the government to do its job.

But another factor contributing to national denialism may be the sheer prosperity and safety of modern American life. Americans are simply not used to the idea that what’s happening on the news might change their daily life. In countries where a political or natural disaster radically altered life within living memory, such as China or Vietnam, people were psychologically prepared for the impact of the coronavirus—for the idea that today’s headlines might mean your life will be different tomorrow.

But in the United States, the news has very rarely had that kind of immediate impact. Mostly it’s been something happening to other people, far away. Even if events hit relatively close to home, they don’t matter. When Puerto Rico—a U.S. territory—was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017, the American public barely noticed. It’s why the response of the liberal press in the early months of the pandemic was to try to turn the coronavirus into another participant in the culture war; the real danger, papers earnestly proclaimed, was not the virus but racism. Even when mass death came to the United States, its impact was brutally disproportionate. At first, these outbreaks were small and localized, like that among Orthodox Jews in New York, but then, as the virus spread, the first wave hit Black Americans three times harder than others.

To be sure, the United States has natural disasters. But the regular exceptions are limited and regionally specific: floods in New Orleans, tornados in the Midwest. They’re also much more visible than the pandemic; nobody can disagree with the existence of a hurricane. Throw into the difficulty of accepting an invisible foe the paranoid history of American conspiratorialism, and you end up with a nation dotted with denialists. Being denied a high school party or a Thanksgiving get-together has become defined for tens of millions of Americans as an act of government oppression, not a necessary sacrifice. (In contrast, Chinese sacrificed the single-most important family event of the year, the Spring Festival, entirely.)

This was not inevitable, nor is it entirely unique. Australia and New Zealand are proverbially lucky countries, with long histories of prosperity. But their proximity to Asia, experience with SARS, and strong notions of communal support meant their response was fast and effective. Europe lacks the degree of American mistrust in government, but its own seven decades of postwar complacency made its coronavirus response dangerously late and drained the will to sustain measures through the winter.

But America’s current path is now locked in, since the Republican Party has committed itself wholeheartedly to sustaining the same bad ideas that caused the disaster to begin with. Even the incoming administration of Joe Biden will find itself effectively hamstrung on any action, literally unable to take the lifesaving measures—from a true lockdown to economic support—that the country desperately needs. American exceptionalism has finally caught up with the United States.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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