And we have a president who doesn’t appear to give a damn.
How did we get here? The story is relatively simple. Through shutdowns and social distancing, Americans flattened the curve of new infections. But we plateaued at a very high level — roughly 20,000 a day during most of May. (Contrast this with France, which flattened the curve to a plateau of roughly 400 daily cases.)
Then came Memorial Day. Many Americans — with the encouragement of some politicians — took this as the mental end of the crisis phase. On May 25, there were roughly 18,000 new infections. On June 25, it was 40,000. Six days after that, 53,000. And a few weeks from now, the Fourth of July harvest of stupidity will be revealed.
On the second upswing of the first wave — where we currently stand — the profile of the disease has changed. Because nursing homes are better protected and the elderly have adhered to pandemic hygiene, the average age of someone infected by the disease has fallen by roughly two decades. Though a significant number still need hospitalization, fatality rates are lower. America is doing a better job shielding the most vulnerable.
But there are two problems. First, following covid-19’s assault on the body, a significant number of younger people end up with long-term health complications. One doctor I know says that 40-year-old patients he has treated sometimes end up climbing stairs like wheezing senior citizens. Researchers warn of lingering damage to the brain. President Trump’s claim that 99 percent of covid-19 cases are “totally harmless” is a cruel lie.
Second, allowing the exponential spread of the disease will eventually make protecting the vulnerable an impossible task. All our islands of safety for the ill and elderly are endangered when the sea level of infection rapidly rises.
Many Americans simply don’t understand what exponential growth means. Three million infections can quickly bloom to 10 million infections, and higher. Even with a relatively low fatality rate, this could easily leave more than half a million Americans dead.
Who is responsible for this unfolding national disaster? It starts at the top, where Trump has been a determined and creative ally of the virus. In mid-April, the president simultaneously endorsed a strategy for gradual, prudent reopening of the economy and began egging on populist advocates of immediate reopening. It was clear to everyone where his sympathies truly lay.
Rather than bucking up governors to continue shutdowns until the burden of disease was manageable, Trump undercut them for his own (perceived) benefit. Foolish, reckless governors quickly got the message that economic recovery was more urgent than pandemic responsibility. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) actually stripped localities of the authority to issue stay-at-home orders so no one could resist his aggressive reopening plan. But even governors who demonstrate concern about people’s lives have found many Americans — particularly younger Americans — increasingly resistant to basic pandemic precautions.
The successful control of infectious disease — using bed nets against malaria, adhering to AIDS medications, social distancing to inhibit the spread of the novel coronavirus — is ultimately a matter of individual behavior. Successful attempts to improve such behavior on a large scale require a consistent message from all the commanding heights of a culture — the medical profession, the government, the church and the media.
The default position for many Americans is a robust individualism that leads to suspicion of government mandates. Overcoming this natural tendency requires energetic persuasion. In the coronavirus crisis, the medical profession has done its job by providing the facts. But the government (see Trump), the church (see Trump’s evangelical enablers) and the media (see Fox News and talk radio) have encouraged broad skepticism about essential health measures. In the process, they have created a right-wing constituency for preventable death.
There are two options here. Either Americans will be rudely jerked toward sanity by the sight of rapidly filling graves, or leaders of determination and talent will rise above the self-destructive strife and make deliverance from illness and death a unifying national cause. The president has left this role vacant. It needs filling.