SARS-CoV-19, the virus causing rampant COVID-19 infections around the globe, is the greatest scourge to the country’s health and economic well being as any threat during my lifetime. As disturbing and puzzling as how the virus attacks the body — its spike protein able to penetrate human cells to replicate — is the country’s psychological response to the pandemic.
Assuming no attempts to mitigate the virus, an infected person is estimated to spread the virus to 5.7 others (R0 = 5.7), which makes it highly contagious, particularly since someone carrying the disease often shows no symptoms 1. While most people do recover, the number of deaths from the virus in the U.S. has reached a staggering 250,000 since January 21, when the first U.S. case was reported.
That dichotomy — most recover yet many die — may help explain why our society is struggling to develop a national strategy and the will to carry it out. The failure to develop and deploy an effective strategy to address the pandemic falls on the president. When confronted by a national challenge, we look to our president to marshal the country’s response and secure citizen commitment, particularly if we are asked as individuals to sacrifice for the good of the nation.
Tragically, President Trump’s response has been confusing and contradictory. The accelerated campaign to develop a vaccine, known as Operation Warp Speed, is his best effort, as a vaccine will have the greatest long-term effect reducing infections and deaths. Unfortunately, as the pandemic arrived in the U.S., the administration was inconsistent and ineffective coordinating the manufacturing and distribution of an adequate supply of PPE, largely leaving the states to compete with each other for scarce supplies. He favored the states with Republican governors and criticized Democratic governors and mayors for their quarantines.
From the bully pulpit, the president downplayed the seriousness of the virus and the best steps to prevent infection, undermining the use of masks through his words and the actions of his administration. The lack of masks and social distancing at the White House ceremony nominating Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court arguably led to the president’s own infection with COVID-19, as well as multiple people who attended the event.
His contradictory and bellicose messages have obfuscated the seriousness of the pandemic and amped a strain of American individualism and distrust of government, a “you’re not the boss of me” attitude. His tweets and campaign speeches calling for the “liberation” of states and cities imposing quarantine measures fuels this dangerous ideology.
The president has consistently claimed success fighting the pandemic. During last week’s presidential debate, he said, “We're rounding the corner, it’s going away.” Yet the data shows the falseness of his words. The ineffectiveness of the president’s hollow claims and his wanton disregard for scientific guidance is quite obvious comparing the COVID-19 infections in China and the U.S.
China was slow to respond to the initial outbreak in Wuhan. When it did, it imposed a severe lockdown across the country, from 23 January until 8 April in Wuhan (ending sooner in other parts of the country). While the accuracy of China’s official numbers is questionable, it’s hard to argue the country’s infections were as high or as prolonged as those in the U.S.
Although its authoritarian quarantine was draconian, China did a far better job containing the virus. The country’s economy has reopened and is recovering. We are still struggling to limit the spread as SARS-CoV-2 propagates across the country. Surely our democracy can do better than we’ve done.
Today, appearing on CNN’s State of the Union, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said, “We’re not going to control the pandemic. We are gonna control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas.” He said the pandemic can’t be controlled “because it is a contagious virus, just like the flu.” 2