Our self-confidence, verging on hubris, should be shaken by the coronavirus. The United States has been a laggard, not a world leader, in confronting the pandemic. As The Post reported, a German company shipped more than 1.4 million diagnostic tests for the World Health Organization by the end of February. During that same time, U.S. efforts to produce our own test misfired. By Feb. 28, only 4,000 tests from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been used. U.S. testing is now ramping up, but as of Tuesday we had only tested roughly 56,000 people, or 1 in 5,800 Americans. South Korea has tested 274,000 people, or 1 in 187 South Koreans. “Losing two months is close to disastrous, and that’s what we did,” Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told Bloomberg.
We should not be especially surprised by our failure at pandemic-fighting, because if we are being honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that the United States has long been failing. We remain one of the richest countries in the world, but by international standards we look more like a Third World nation.
As Quartz pointed out in 2017, we lag in almost every measure of societal well-being among the wealthy nations (now 36) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). As of 2016, we had the second-highest poverty rate, the highest level of income inequality and the highest level of obesity. We spent the most on education but produced less-than-average results. We were also below average on renewable energy, infrastructure investment and voter turnout. We are the only OECD nation that doesn’t mandate paid family leave. One area where we do lead is gun violence. Our homicide rate is nearly 50 percent above the OECD average.
Our health-care failures are particularly important now. We spend more on health care than any other country in the world, but we are the only OECD country without universal medical coverage (27.9 million Americans lacked health insurance in 2018). Child mortality in the United States is the highest in the OECD, and life expectancy is below average. We have far fewer hospital beds per 1,000 people than other advanced democracies (2.4 compared to 12.2 in South Korea), which makes us particularly vulnerable to a pandemic.
Why has America become so backward? That is a complex topic. I would direct readers to the work of analysts such as Jonathan Rauch, Francis Fukuyama, and Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann. But I would ascribe a lot of what’s wrong to growing partisan polarization that makes it almost impossible to address our most pressing needs. Republicans are getting more conservative and Democrats more liberal — although not to the same degree. The GOP is far more extreme than the Democratic Party.
President Trump has exacerbated the problem, but he didn’t start it. He is himself the product of decades of right-wing revolt against government and increasingly against reason itself. America is unusual in having a major party — and a major television network — devoted to climate denialism and protecting the “right” of everyone to own an assault rifle. The GOP and the right-wing media have long been a hotbed of nutty conspiracy theories, and their reluctance to face the reality of the new coronavirus set back efforts to save lives.
The Republicans’ decades-long demonization of government has consequences. As Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith noted, the federal civilian workforce has fallen as a percentage of total nonfarm employment from 18 percent in 1980 to 15 percent today, and their salaries top out at just under $200,000 — “only slightly more than an entry-level engineer makes at Google.” There are still plenty of high-quality civil servants, but their ranks are too thin, and they are too much at the mercy of political yahoos. “When a typical European parliamentary government changes hands from one party to another, the ministers and a handful of staffers turn over,” Fukuyama notes. “In the U.S., a change of administration (even within the same party) opens up some 5,000 ‘Schedule C’ job positions to political appointees.” That means Trump’s band of grifters can do far more damage than they could in, say, France or Germany.
The coronavirus failure should be a wake-up call that Trump has not made America great again. Quite the opposite: He has accelerated our decline. We must not only beat this pandemic; we must also address a host of other ills that have been festering for decades. In recent years, America has been “exceptional” mainly in the scale of our governmental failures compared with those of other industrialized democracies.