In fact, the U.S. death rate was in the middle of the pack for a big, rich country. The United States did better than Italy, France, Spain and Britain, worse than Germany or Canada. Outside of Asia, however, no country fared particularly well, and this is understandable.
Humans assess risks in two key ways: by reference to their own experience and by looking at what others like them are doing. This works extremely well most of the time, which is how humankind has managed to stay alive for so long. But when dealing with a truly new kind of danger — such as, say, a once-in-a-century pandemic — the system breaks down, utterly. Your own experience tells you that modern medicine has brought plagues under control, so there’s no need to worry. Everyone else’s experience says the same thing, so when you look at your neighbors to see whether they sense danger, you’ll get the impression that everything is fine. This is why the history of crisis and catastrophe suggests that most people, institutions and nations perform badly under the initial onslaught of a novel threat.
Countries in China’s vicinity, however, had a firsthand brush with a nasty, new infectious disease: the SARS epidemic of 2003. That experience helped them develop playbooks for future outbreaks. So when the novel coronavirus emerged, Asian populations masked up and stayed home. In Western countries, meanwhile, the virus spread silently for months. Our government and others acted only after thousands of deaths were inevitable and the only way to avoid even more was to send the citizenry into lockdown. At that late date, how badly a country did seems to have mostly been a matter of dumb luck: how early was the population seeded with disease, and did those index cases propagate quickly through crowded super-spreading events, or mosey along through the moderately infectious and the modestly social?
The United States was middling lucky. Note the past tense.
The quality of our leadership might not matter much in the initial “headless chicken” phase of a crisis when no one knows what they are doing, and many of the efforts will turn out to be useless or counterproductive. But, over time, luck matters less and management matters more. We expect leadership to get better, to learn what works and what does not, to understand the risks and progressively fine-tune their response. That is what European nations have done, and it is precisely what Trump has not. Months in, the president is still playing down the threat, still encouraging people to go out and gather in large groups, still hostile toward the wearing of masks.
The effects are evident in the stark divergence between the number of new U.S. and European Union cases. Graphs tracking the outbreak show the E.U. leading the United States until April, then the E.U. curve falls off sharply — from more than 30,000 cases a day to 4,000. The United States hits roughly the same peak a little later, but our curve enters a shallow glide, almost brushes 20,000 cases, then turns northward again. As of this writing, almost 35,000 new cases a day are emerging.
Not all of that can be laid at Trump’s feet. American federalism means local officials have considerable discretion over public health efforts. And the worst U.S. outbreak occurred under two Democrats — New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — who initially rivaled Trump in their “see no evil” approach to covid-19. But the outbreak has shifted its locus to many states with Republican governors. When a president from your party convenes mass gatherings in viral hot spots, tells people they needn’t bother wearing masks and disparages expanded testing, that makes it very hard to say “No, don’t do those things” to voters for whom ignoring the health nannies has become a point of partisan pride.
So perhaps forgive Trump the first three months as the natural course of calamity. The outcomes in the months after that, however, will be his responsibility. And, unfortunately, the heaviest cost for his failures will be paid not by Trump, but in American lives.