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Artillery Row

The unremarkable truth about America’s Covid response

The US handling of Covid-19 does not make it a ‘failed state’

The emerging consensus among America’s chattering classes is that Covid-19 has spelled the end of the United States as an advanced society. Commentators have suggested that the United States is “acting like a failed state,” responding  “like Pakistan or Belarus,” and is undeserving of the title of “developed economy” – an accusation on which Trump and his critics seem to converge.

To be sure, the 200,000 death toll from COVID-19, which the United States is slowly reaching, is tragic. And there is no way around the irresponsible behaviour of President Trump throughout the pandemic, who knowingly downplayed its dangers, discouraged the use of facemasks, touted unproven cures, and predicted the virus’ miraculous end.

Moreover, as The New York Times’ Ross Douthat observed, several factors other than Trump’s leadership, or lack thereof, have placed the US at a disadvantage relative to other advanced societies. In the European Union, countries almost instantly suspended the Schengen rules on free, passportless travel. A similar a move by US states would be likely struck down as unconstitutional within hours. An effective testing and tracing regime, as deployed by Korea, Taiwan, or Singapore, would not only be technically difficult to execute on the needed scale but would also conflict with constitutional protections of privacy – not to speak about the country’s cultural libertarianism and its distrust of experts.

In no other country has the pandemic been portrayed to the same extent as a fatal indictment of its social contract and system of government as in the US

Yet, the US experience with COVID-19 has not been a complete outlier. The number of per capita deaths in the US is lower than in the UK and on a par with Sweden’s – hardly a success story in the current pandemic but arguably a country at more-than-decent levels of economic development and governance. The US case fatality ratio (a somewhat tricky metric when the true number of cases is unknown) is close to global average, just below Germany’s. Death rates recorded in Belgium, Spain, the UK and Italy are worse than in the US.

The picture is by no means a flattering one. But in no other country has the pandemic been portrayed to the same extent as a fatal indictment of its social contract and system of government as in the US – or elevated to the status of monomania, as of late alternating only with protests against ‘systemic racism’ and police violence. “Americans, almost exclusively on the left, were disgusted not just with Trump but with America, as a country and perhaps even as an idea,” the Brookings Institution’s scholar Shadi Hamid writes. Meanwhile, in the UK, Belgium or Spain, life goes on, albeit cautiously and with trepidation about the looming second wave. And, unlike in the US, paralysed by the power of teachers’ unions, schools across Europe have reopened without any controversy.

Treating the US as a singularly catastrophic case ignores the fact that daily numbers of new cases of COVID-19 in the EU now exceed those in America, where both daily deaths and new cases have been on the decline since the beginning of August. In several European countries, most dramatically in Spain, the situation is quickly spiralling out of control, arguably driven by the reopening of the EU’s internal borders and summer holidays. Even countries that effectively avoided the first wave by quickly hunkering down and embracing the use of facemasks, such as Slovakia and the Czech Republic, are now seeing record numbers of new cases.

As illustrated by the wide backlash against the UK government’s “rule of six,” it is unclear whether European governments are able to reintroduce draconian measures from the Spring for a second time if current trends hold. Setting aside what the ‘right’ policy mix is, the worsening situation in Europe belies the notion of the US as a singular failure or an example of breath-taking irresponsibility.

Furthermore, the pandemic appears to be having a worse economic impact on Europe than on the United States. The International Monetary Fund predicts an 8 percent contraction in the US, compared to 10.2 percent across the Euro area and the UK – and almost 13 percent in France, Italy, and Spain.

One important reason is a more effective economic policy response in the US. Notwithstanding the deadlock and the hyperpolarisation of the election year, the CARES Act, adopted on a bipartisan basis, mobilised $2.2 trillion to keep the US economy and jobs afloat. While individual European countries including the UK adopted their own measures to support their economies, limited by their ability to borrow, the EU mustered a much more modest recovery package to help its economies in distress: €750 billion, mostly in loans. While the US rescue package went out of the door within weeks, EU member states are still squabbling about the details of the pandemic-related loans and grants, to be disbursed from next year onwards.

The knowledge that other countries too are struggling is no excuse for policy failures on this side of the Atlantic. It is, however, useful in providing perspective at a time when all incentives in the public sphere seem stacked in favour of hyperbole and hysteria.

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