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Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: America’s coronavirus failure

Why has the US response been so lacklustre?

This is what losing looks like. As America continues to set dizzying daily coronavirus totals — 67,000 new cases yesterday, the sixth record-breaking day in the last ten — only the president’s most shameless boosters claim anything resembling victory over the virus.

Optimists — including your correspondent — pin our hopes on improvements in treatment and the fact that young Americans are responsible for the lion’s share of cases in Florida, Texas, California, Arizona and elsewhere. A spike in deaths is surely coming; the hope is that these factors mean the catastrophe will be more limited than the North East’s darkest days in the spring.

So far, Covid-19 is responsible for fewer deaths per million people in the United States (405) than in the hardest hit countries in Western Europe: the United Kingdom (658), Italy (578), Spain (607), Sweden (544), France (460), Belgium (844). Those comparisons with the world’s worst outbreaks might not be so flattering in a month’s time. Nor do they capture the way in which, judged in isolation, American policymakers have failed to prevent or properly prepare for this new surge.

If the grim forward-looking question is how many more Americans will die from Covid-19, the retrospective one is why the American response has been quite so lacklustre.

For some, the answer starts and ends with the Oval Office. Donald Trump, they claim, lacks the temperament, focus, intelligence and motivation to deal with the crisis that will define his presidency. The evidence — including the absence of a national plan to deal with the pandemic and Trump’s insistence that the new wave of cases is simply a product of America’s tremendous testing capacity — suggests the President is guilty as charged. 

According to a certain kind of establishment liberalism, Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic is part of a broader global lesson about the shortcomings of populism. It’s an argument recently articulated by the FT’s Gideon Rachman, who lumps Trump in with Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro to claim that “the distinguishing characteristic of the Trump-Bolsonaro approach to Covid-19 is a fatal inability to face reality”. 

There are a few awkward details for proponents of this view. The first is the high death tolls in decidedly non-populist countries such as France and Belgium — and the low ones in countries run by national populists like Orban’s Hungary, Netanyahu’s Israel and Duda’s Poland.

Then there’s the fact that, as Aaron Sibarium reminds us this week, it was centrist liberals now pointing their fingers at the populists who were initially most likely to stick their heads in the sand, reflexively insisting that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. The gloomy outlook of many on the Trumpian right actually served them quite well when it came to foreseeing the spread of the pandemic at the start of the year. Doomsters like White House trade adviser Peter Navarro and Steve Bannon saw what most of us missed. 

Blaming Trump alone, or populism more broadly, also misses the technicolour detail of America’s failure. It makes little account of America’s federal system and the complicated patchwork of coronavirus fighting policies it has led to. It ignores the blunders of a bloated administrative state: the Food and Drug Administration’s needless delays to ramping up testing, the Center for Disease Control’s dodgy testing kits.

Nor do state-level missteps fit neatly into a Red-Blue framework. There are gung-ho ‘live free or die’ Republicans who deserve blame reopening prematurely. But there are Democrats who have made costly mistakes too, like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who oversaw a care home disaster in the Empire State. Impeccably liberal California — which instituted the country’s fist shelter-in-place order in March — now faces as steep an upwards slope in cases as Texas.

To reiterate, there are uniquely Trumpian deficiencies in America’s coronavirus response, but the president is the apotheosis of the deeper problems revealed by this crisis: an unserious, shallow and sclerotic political culture, and a divided country seemingly incapable of unifying in the face of a common enemy.

National Affairs editor Yuval Levin puts it another way, lamenting in A Time to Build, a book published before Covid-19 arrived in the US, the way in which American institutions have become little more than stages for performative outrage: “In one arena after another, we find people who should be insiders formed by institutions acting like outsiders performing on institutions.”

Of course, Americans of all stripes know something in their political culture has gone wrong. But they are convinced the other side is to blame. Perhaps Covid-19 will shock them into realising how widely the blame should be shared.

Consider, for instance, a parallel universe in which 2016 went differently and Hillary Clinton is in the White House handling Covid-19. America’s death toll would likely be lower, but by how much? The national response would probably be more focused, the commander in chief’s public statements less mortifying, but a culture war about masks and lockdowns would probably still dominate as bureaucrats in federal agencies made many of the same missteps and just as much state-level incompetence failed to slow the spread.

Back in this Trump-managed pandemic, participants on both sides of the ongoing debate over reopening rage furiously about the headline question — too soon or too late? — but show little interest in the nuts and bolts of how to make reopening succeed.

The dynamic matches the broader debate about the role of the state. The left says it is too small, the right says it is too big and no one pays much attention to the question of what government does and how it might do it more competently. Those in the technocratic middle claim a laser-like focus on following the evidence but are too dismissive of dissenting voices and too resistant to changing things that self-evidently aren’t working.

This pandemic is a reckoning for Trump and those who have supported him, but it should also be a broader wake up call for all of America. This country’s two political tribes tell themselves very different stories about their country and their government. Covid-19 has exposed the myths in both of them.

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