For nations like South Korea and New Zealand, the rapid institution of testing and case tracing, mixed with social distancing, allowed outbreaks of COVID-19 to be addressed and, in the latter case, completely extinguished. Countries like Italy, Spain, and France, where the explosion of cases was severe and widespread, applied weeks of enforced, nationally supported lockdowns to break the back of a spiraling epidemic, reduce the number of new cases by orders of magnitude, and allow cautious restoration of their economies. Even the U.K., after a series of false starts, bad plans, and calls for stiff-upper-lip human sacrifices, got their act together when Prime Minister Boris Johnson became a believer through personal experience.
And then there’s the United States. Almost four months after the initial surge of virus blindsided states that didn’t understand the extent of spread that had happened in the ignorance generated by zero testing, the COVID-19 epidemic is burning more brightly than ever before. That’s happening in spite of every warning and all the knowledge that should have been gained over those intervening months. And it’s blazing at such a level that on Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that this fire can’t be brought under control. The United States simply has “too much virus” to contain.
As MSNBC reports, these disheartening words came courtesy of the principal deputy director of the CDC, Dr. Anne Schuchat. “We’re not in the situation of New Zealand or Singapore or Korea where a new case is rapidly identified and all the contacts are traced and people are isolated who are sick and people who are exposed are quarantined and they can keep things under control,” said Schuchat. “We have way too much virus across the country for that right now, so it’s very discouraging.”
It’s not just discouraging. It’s enraging. The virus may be a natural development that evolved from a related infection of wildlife. But the reaction to that virus was a series of human choices.
The United States doesn’t have a coordinated federal testing program. The United States doesn’t have a national system of case management and contact tracing. The United States doesn’t have consistent nationwide regulations on how to conduct social distancing, when businesses and gatherings should be closed, or when to enforce stay-at-home orders. The United States doesn’t have something as simple as a national mandate to wear the masks that have been proven as one of the most effective measures in slowing the speed of the virus. None of that happened because it had to. None of it came because the U.S. could not do those things.
All of that happened because Donald Trump chose not to provide any genuine federal response to the crisis, and because Republicans refused to address his failure.
If Schuchat’s statement that the virus is raging out of control and the United States has no means to check the spread seems daunting … that was just the warm-up. “This is really the beginning,” said the deputy director the CDC. “I think there was a lot of wishful thinking around the country […] What we have in the United States, it’s hard to describe because it’s so many different outbreaks. […] there’s more virus circulating than there was.”
How bad is Schuchat saying things going to be? Well, since the U.S. has already passed more deaths than Vietnam, the Korean War, and the the H1N1 pandemic combined, there are only a few “goals” remaining. “As much as we’ve studied [the 1918 flu pandemic],” said Schuchat, “I think what we’re experiencing as a global community is really bad and it’s similar to that 1918 transformational experience.”
Given that Trump has made it clear that the inaction he took at the outset of the pandemic was the peak of his involvement, no one should be expecting that Washington, D.C. will in any way pick up this burden and try to stomp out that fire. Just as in the initial weeks, any response will be left to states. And increasingly, as in Texas and Arizona, Republican “leaders” at the state level are shrugging off their responsibilities to county and city officials. Those officials have far less authority and far less ability to enforce their decisions. So as Trump passed to governors, and governors pass to cities, the response goes from small, to smaller, to smallest.
Effectively, the response becomes microscopic and the virus becomes huge. And a nation that regards itself as “the greatest” becomes the absolute worst.