What we are seeing right now is the collapse of civic authority and public trust at what is only the beginning of a protracted crisis. In the face of an onrushing pandemic, the United States has exhibited a near-total evacuation of responsibility and political leadership — a sociopathic disinterest in performing the basic function of government, which is to protect its citizens.
Things will get worse from here. According to a survey of epidemiologists released yesterday, the coronavirus outbreak probably won’t peak before May. That doesn’t mean it will be over by May, of course, but that it will be getting worse and worse and worse over the next two months, and for much of that time, presumably, exponentially worse. And so the suspension of the NBA season and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson’s announcement that they are sick with COVID-19 will seem, in relatively short order, like quite small potatoes. And for all of that time, the country’s response will be commanded and controlled by Donald Trump.
Trump is, of course, the last man in the world you would want in charge right now. In an extremely illuminating interview with Gabriel Debenedetti published this morning, Obama’s Ebola czar Ron Klain described his response to that threat, which he suggested was a relatively good model for how the U.S. might have responded to this one. That response began with 10,000 public-health workers sent to fight and investigate the disease. This administration has sent none, which means it has been, practically speaking, flying blind about the nature of the coronavirus and the challenges it represents to public-health systems. In fact, it’s worse than that; for all intents and purposes, the administration hasn’t been flying at all, spending the last three months sitting by entirely idle and indifferent, rather than scaling up testing regimes, issuing protocols, and preparing for a major surge of patients by developing contingency plans to expand hospital capacity around the country wherever it became needed. If reading about Ron Klain makes you wish he was still in charge, you are surely not alone. But the bigger issue isn’t that he has been replaced by a less competent figure. It’s that Trump had eliminated the office of pandemic response entirely, so that until he appointed Mike Pence — who had bungled Indiana’s response to an HIV crisis a few years ago — no one in the White House even had a pandemic disease portfolio. Why? It is hard to imagine the reason, aside from the fact that the office was established under Obama and that this president has operated with such reflexive spite and sadism toward anything his predecessor had touched, whatever the costs to the country—and even his own supporters.
It was just last night, in his disastrous speech, that Trump finally seemed to even take the outbreak seriously, and yet he seemed only capable of conceiving a “response” in terms of border control and tax cuts. This is a particular disease of the president’s, but it is also a representative one: Our leaders have spent so long focused on the value of economic growth they are likely to try to respond to any crisis, even a deeply urgent humanitarian one, as an economic problem to be solved with stimulus. What about hospital beds?
But the dysfunction goes much deeper than the president—even deeper than the levels of the bureaucracy that he touches, through appointments and executive directives. In a functional system, much of the preparation and messaging would have been undertaken by the CDC. In this case, it chose not to simply adopt the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 test kits — stockpiling them in the millions in the months we had between the first arrival of the coronavirus in China and its widespread appearance here — but to try to develop its own test. Why? It isn’t clear. But they bungled that project, too, failing to produce a reliable test and delaying the start of any comprehensive testing program by a few critical weeks.
The testing shortage is catastrophic: It means that no one knows how bad the outbreak already is, and that we couldn’t take effectively aggressive measures even we wanted to. There are so few tests available, or so little capacity to run them, that they are being rationed for only the most obvious candidates, which practically defeats the purpose. It is not those who are very sick or who have traveled to existing hot spots abroad who are most critical to identify, but those less obvious, gray-area cases — people who may be carrying the disease around without much reason to expect they’re infecting others. Into this vacuum has stepped the Gates Foundation and Amazon, which are trying to deliver large-scale testing capacity at least within Seattle. But in what awful, dysfunctional universe do we live that it has fallen to private companies and philanthropies to deliver necessary medical support in a time of American pandemic? There is probably no stronger argument for public health care than the crisis we are living through today, and no more grotesque indictment of our present system that leading providers and insurers had to be cajoled into waiving fees and co-pays to even deliver tests. Nevertheless, there is a pathetically inadequate testing capacity, such that even patients with obviously concerning symptoms are being turned away. Even those who are getting tested have to wait at least several days for results; in Senegal, where the per capita income is less than $3,000, they are getting results in four hours. Yesterday, apparently, the CDC conducted zero tests.
What kind of society behaves this way, with a complete lack of institutional guidance and coordinated purpose, subjecting the vulnerable and scared to the terrors of pandemic disease? America, apparently. A few days ago, I wrote on Twitter that the coronavirus, and our distressingly inept response, kept bringing to mind an essay by Umair Haque, first published in 2018 and prompted primarily by the opioid crisis, about the U.S. as the world’s first rich failed state. Every day it seems more prescient, but perhaps never more so than when it was announced that New York City schools could only be closed down as a last-resort measure, because more than a hundred thousand of its students depended on the school system for food and would, if schools closed, go hungry. A backup plan has since been developed that would allow the schools to distribute to-go lunches in the case of closures, but that only raises the next question, of child care — who will take care of these kids, outside of school, and how will their parents continue to earn a living? So many of them are so close to the edge already, with no meaningful social safety net below them to count on. In the richest country the world has ever known, everyone is on their own and everything seems broken.
Of course, there have been pockets of leadership here and there in the U.S. — Andrew Cuomo in New York, Jay Inslee in Washington, and Gavin Newsom in California, to name three. And of course there is great scientific and medical courage in labs and hospitals around the country — though viral Twitter threads and Facebook posts suggest many of those working in hospitals and fighting the disease today are much more afraid than public statements suggest. But nearly all of the efforts we have seen, to this point, to produce social distance and cancel large group events have come from private organizations and even individuals — private schools, private companies, particular conferences, the NBA. There has been no meaningful centralized leadership of any kind, and, perhaps more important, no reliable source of information or guidance for how to behave as individuals. Instead, there is only a vacuum of authority, and the vague advice that we should wash our hands, suspend nonessential travel, stay six feet from one another. Almost everywhere you look, public anxiety has been met with total silence, which sends the message: Fend for yourself. Every institution you thought you might turn to — for medical support, direction, social guidance — is at best struggling and, in many cases, worse. Many enormous questions remain entirely unanswered, and there is no authority or entity to turn to for information — about what the lethality rate is, or whether we can expect a weather-driven slowdown in infections as the spring turns to summer; about the possibility of multiple strains, or the mystery of why the disease seems so much more deadly in Italy and Iran than even in Wuhan, where it hit before anybody knew what it was.
This is not how a functioning society responds to a crisis. And while it is important to keep in mind that even the worst-case scenarios for COVID-19 stop far short of producing total social and political disarray — producing merely widespread death and suffering and an almost incalculable burden on our already stretched-thin medical capacity — it is nevertheless astonishing, and horrifying, just how quickly we have arrived here, almost totally distrustful of the civic institutions we expect to protect us.
And how did we arrive here? Part of it is, of course, Trump, who has so accelerated the decades-long Republican war on government, which is to say good governance, that it can now seem the only two people actually working in the federal government are Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller (who, by the way, jointly wrote the speech the president gave last night). Part of it is the long story of neoliberalism, which has taught us all that we make our political mark on the world through consumer choice and individual behavior, that we shouldn’t expect much but economic management from government, and that citizens are meant to be unleashed into unemcumbered markets. Part of it is even deeper cultural transformation, involving growing distrust of institutions and authorities and the growth of a kind of casually paranoid style of go-it-alone American life, as was so memorably documented in Chris Hayes’s The Twilight of the Elites. And part of it is, I think, in the term Ross Douthat has deployed in the title of his new book, “decadence” — the ancient imperial cycle of rising power and competence followed by avarice and narcissism and shortsightedness, but accelerated, in the case of the U.S., for a hypermodern age.
Barely more than two decades ago, the United States saw itself as a kind of eternal and all-powerful empire — the indispensable nation. It would have seemed laughable, then, to be told that China would have produced a far better and more comprehensive pandemic response — a shamefully superior response. But today, distressingly, we take that relative failure for granted, and don’t expect to outperform the Chinese on matters like these, let alone South Korea or Singapore. What feels new is that we are doing worse even than Italy, where in the past few days hundreds have died and where they are now rationing critical-care devices between patients who need them — deciding, between two people who will die without support, which one has a better chance of surviving with the machine and giving it to them. We are well behind Italy and seem somewhat closer in the effectiveness and coordination of our response to Iran, where it’s estimated millions may be infected, including many senior figures in government. When countries like these are desperate, they now turn to China, which is sending a huge supply of necessary equipment and human resources to Italy. The United States used to play that role not that long ago. Now, in this crisis and future ones, who will help us?
*A version of this article appears in the March 16, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!