The United States: proud home of the world's largest prison population, and among rich nations, lowest life expectancy and highest obesity rate. Now we can add the world's largest coronavirus outbreak to our national parade of ignominy — there have been over 5 million confirmed cases around the world and 330,000 deaths, and roughly 30 percent of each have happened in the U.S.
Most or all of this carnage could have been prevented. A recent study suggested that if lockdown procedures had been implemented one week earlier than they actually were, about 55 percent of the deaths would have been avoided. Two weeks earlier, and about 80 percent would have been. Then of course, if America had followed the lead of capable countries like Taiwan, Vietnam, or Greece, practically nobody would have died. It's a world-historical failure of governance.
The lion's share of blame for this disaster must fall on President Trump, who is responsible for protecting the nation from pandemic threats, and has utterly botched the job from January to today. But he is far from the only failure — the worst outbreak in the country by far happened in New York, a state controlled by the Democratic Party at all levels of government. It is a bipartisan rot that is dissolving America from the inside.
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It is now obvious that the U.S. national response to the virus itself is by far the worst among rich countries. Indeed, in most of the ways that matter there has been no response. Trump frittered away a critical two months when the virus was first beginning to spread, denying it was problem and insisting it would just go away, and when states locked themselves down in a justifiable panic, frittered away the following two months and counting. There has been no coordinated national-level purchases of medical equipment and protective gear, no full-scale national testing program, no national quarantine facilities, no national contract-tracing effort, and no sign whatsoever Trump is ever going to set any of that up. Indeed, perhaps the most substantial action of the Trump administration — aside from fueling anti-lockdown protests from crack-brained maniacs — has been randomly confiscating shipments of protective equipment bought by states and hospitals, possibly so that Jared Kushner can use them for political patronage. We are now four months into the pandemic and barely in a better position to control it than when we started.
Now, fragments of a pandemic control system have been set up in most places, but that is almost entirely the result of state, local, and private efforts. What little positive that has been done at the national level has been the remaining shreds of the federal bureaucracy that Trump hasn't torn up, or filled with idiot cronies, operating on autopilot. The efforts have been haphazard and badly incomplete.
Trump is constitutionally incapable of dealing with a viral pandemic. His only political skill is shameless demagoguery: whipping his supporters into a raging froth by lying, downplaying problems, blaming others, or boosting quack miracle cures. The only thing that is real to him is himself, and the only thing he truly cares about is how he looks on television. One could no more expect him to respond rationally to such a crisis than one could expect a toddler to engineer the Akashi Kaikyō Bridge.
But New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio are not unhinged crackpots, and they still enabled, through their inaction, one of the worst regional coronavirus outbreaks in the world. As Charles Duhigg writes at The New Yorker, as the local epidemic gathered strength, they squabbled with their scientific advisers and each other, resisting the need for immediate lockdown measures until it was too late. These two men are just incompetent fools, leavened with a large helping of malevolence in Cuomo's case. After horribly botching the crisis, the governor leveraged the crisis to slash Medicaid, and now appears to be considering an attack on New York's public school system.
That said, some Democratic officials have acquitted themselves quite well during the pandemic. Washington state, California, and Oregon all managed to keep things from spiraling completely out of control.
But nationally, the Democratic Party has largely failed to confront Trump and the Republican Party over the pandemic. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has consistently allowed Senate Republicans to take the lead on economic rescue packages — only presenting her own dead-on-arrival wish list bill after big corporations and Wall Street had gotten their bailout and most of her leverage was gone. Even then she refused to include an employment protection program proposed by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) despite several moderates supporting it.
Nor has there been any serious investigation into Trump's grotesque failure to contain the virus. A committee has been established but Trump has refused to let any of his officials testify, and Pelosi clearly will not use coercion to force them to do so. Meanwhile, she continues to resist efforts to set up full remote voting systems for the House so that committee meetings could happen normally, likely because doing so would infringe on her ability to control the legislative process. So far the House has only set up proxy voting, where one representative can vote for another, which is both clunky and does not allow for full normal operations (though remote committees are reportedly in the works).
If there ever was a time for counter-mobilization — for Democrats to take up the cause of the huge majority of Americans who think that lockdown measures are appropriate and are worried they are being eased too quickly, and lead a ferocious attack on Republicans' deadly incompetence — now is the time. But as usual, they have chosen to sit on their hands and hope to win by default. Joe Biden's presidential campaign is running some ads in the right vein, but the candidate himself struggles to get through friendly interviews, much less provide a riveting media spectacle to challenge the Trump Show. The best Pelosi can manage is making fun of Trump's weight and suggesting he is like a kid with "doggy doo" on his shoes. Words fail.
Across the world, the pandemic is revealing state capacity — painting in blood which nations can tie their shoelaces, and which cannot. In the United States today, on one side we have the conservative movement diligently turning America into an authoritarian pseudo-democracy, equal parts brutal and incompetent. On the other, the Democrats are all but letting them do it — when they aren't screwing things up almost as badly. It does not bode well for the future of the United States as a political entity.
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