This is not how America should be responding
The coronavirus pandemic has already proven to be a profound institutional test for countries around the world — a test that many countries have yet to pass.
It's a test of state capacity: Can the government formulate and execute a coherent and sensible response to a novel threat quickly enough to make a difference? It's a test of the health-care system: Are there enough trained doctors nurses and other providers; enough basic supplies like masks and pharmaceuticals; enough hospital beds; and can the delivery and financing system get care where needed quickly? And it's also a test of basic social and political cohesion: Can society as a whole pull together to solve a collective problem, something that will require both central coordination and spontaneous cooperation?
So far, the United States is failing on almost every level. But it's the last test that matters most, both in terms of being able to dig our way out of the hole we've already dug and recovering afterward.
There has been a lot of finger-pointing about the lethargy with which America responded to the initial reports out of Asia. Our mistakes at that time were costly indeed: We had two months to massively ramp up testing capacity, roll out production of masks and other basics, and come up with a plan for tracking and isolating people with the virus. Instead, we mostly dithered; worse, our national political leadership actively denied the problem.
It's worth remembering, though, that lethargy was the most common public response outside of those countries that had prior experience with SARS. Countries like Taiwan and Singapore reacted so swiftly and effectively in part because they had already been through a terrifying test drive. Canada and the U.K., France and Germany, Italy and Spain, Iran and Israel didn't all make the same mistakes as we did, and have varied between them in the alacrity and comprehensiveness of their responses. Nonetheless, they are all playing catch-up as their death tolls mount and their economies collapse.
America's health-care system has profound flaws that are being exposed by this crisis, most especially the patchwork system of financing that leaves so many falling through the cracks. But the over-investment that is another feature of our system may yet pay some dividends: in the form of more ICU beds per capita than most countries have, for example, or the enormous capabilities of our biomedical research institutions. Whatever our views on single-payer health care in general, a robust response right now to this specific crisis is entirely feasible economically and technologically, provided we demonstrate the necessary political will and coordination.
And there's the problem. America's toxic politics, our culture war, the profound alienation between regions, between classes, between left and right, or city and country — these divisions have devoured our sense of the common good, and made it extraordinarily difficult to work together even when faced with the most dire circumstances. Indeed, even in the absence of those divisions, we see the unedifying spectacle of large egos simply refusing to consider the greater good. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R) goes to the Senate gym while waiting for his coronavirus test results (which turned out to be positive), and New York's Mayor Bill DeBlasio (D) similarly heads to his favorite gym in Brooklyn for one last turn on the treadmill before announcing that the city's gyms will be shut. The symbolism of such behavior is unmissable: In a time of need, take what you can while you can.
Compare the appalling failure of the self-styled world's greatest deliberative body to pass a plan to cushion the economy from what amounts to an asteroid strike, to the situation in Denmark, where the government has basically stepped in to freeze the economy in place, guaranteeing 75 percent of virtually everyone's salaries so as to prevent any layoffs while people are forbidden from working. This is obviously an absolutely insane way to run an economy — which is the point: The economy is largely going to stop for a short time, and the government is temporarily stepping in to make sure existing arrangements are still in place when it's time to restart. It's a solution optimized to solve this particular crisis, not to change things for the long term. And for that reason, it has overwhelming support. As Flemming Larsen, a professor at the Center for Labor Market Research at Denmark's Aalborg University, reported in an interview with The Atlantic: "We have 10 parties in Parliament. From the very left-wing to the really, really right-wing. And they all agree."
That's a political system functioning the way it is supposed to in a time of crisis. It's what America conspicuously lacks, because the social foundation on which our political system rests is cracked.
I don't want to overstate the failures of American society. There are governors from both parties who have stepped up in the crisis — Ohio's Republican Mike DeWine and New York's Democrat Andrew Cuomo come to mind. There are corporations that took the lead in shifting to work-at-home before ordered to do so by the government, and others that are stepping up to provide vital medical supplies. There will be plenty of examples of both individual heroism and community action that will do the country proud. But you don't count on spontaneous order to win a war, and this is the medical equivalent of war.
I am not neutral between left- and right-wing "takes" on how this crisis has played out, and I'll demonstrate that lack of neutrality come election time. But right now, if we can't start acting like one country, we may not have a country to pull together when this is over.
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