The United States is in the midst of a full-blown second wave of coronavirus. According to Worldometers, Tuesday had 36,015 new cases — the highest number since May 1, and the third-highest ever. Arizona, Florida, South Carolina, California, and Texas are headed for a dire emergency fast. So far deaths have thankfully not returned to their previous highs, probably in part because the new surge appears to be hitting younger patients. But deaths are also a lagging indicator, and they are highly likely to start increasing soon.
Europe, where most countries have largely contained the virus (after initial screw-ups), is looking at America with slackjawed horror. The European Union is likely to close its borders to American travelers when it restores some international travel on July 1. Canada will most likely keep its U.S. border mostly closed when the current agreement expires on July 21.
Around the world, it is beginning to sink in how profoundly rotten the United States is. Unless America manages to turn things around, it will slide from the center of the international order to a peripheral, mistrusted basketcase, and it will deserve it.
It is plainly obvious why the U.S. is experiencing a second wave. The point of coronavirus lockdowns, as I and dozens of others explained months ago, was to buy time for the government to set up more fine-grained containment protocols that could contain the virus more effectively. With transmission reduced to a manageable rate and a test-trace-isolate system in place, countries can return to something like normal life, and an increasing number are doing so. It’s a tricky business and renewed lockdowns may be necessary, as fresh outbreaks in China and elsewhere have shown, but it can be done.
But the Trump administration did not even try this on a national level, or do anything of significance. Indeed, American politics is so broken that we couldn’t even manage the simplest common-sense containment strategy of mandating universal mask-wearing in any indoor space. American public health experts spent weeks on a bizarre and scientifically illiterate crusade against masks — a study years ago found that even cheap homemade masks significantly reduce droplet-based infection — but even after plenty of new evidence has come in, Trump and most Republicans keep insisting a mask is a matter of personal choice. Instead masks got sucked into the conservative grievance industrial complex, becoming another postmodern cultural signifier for right-wingers trying to own the libs.
Trump simply cannot grasp what the pandemic is, because in his mind nobody save himself is a real person. Appearances are all that matter — he is plainly most upset about the Bad Numbers of infections and deaths, and continues to suggest in public that the U.S. should be testing less so he looks less bad. He promises there will be no more lockdowns even as cases spike, and recently held a huge indoor rally in Tulsa — perhaps the worst possible thing he could do, especially because his followers mostly refused to wear the free provided masks. Despite being poorly attended, that rally still could easily turn out to be a mega-spreader event.
It is no doubt extremely alarming for people around the world coming to really grasp the fact that the world’s most powerful country is being run by an incompetent buffoon who could not be trusted with a lemonade stand yet still commands the lockstep loyalty of one of two major political parties. “I can’t imagine what it must be like having to go to work knowing it’s unsafe,” Siouxsie Wiles, a New Zealand disease scientist, told The Washington Post. “There are just going to be more and more people infected, and more and more deaths. It’s heartbreaking.” Indeed, American political reporters have struggled to grasp the reality of Trump as well, though the ongoing catastrophe seems to have finally beaten it into their heads.
But Trump is not the only problem with the United States. New York had the worst outbreak in the country (so far) because Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio dawdled and procrastinated in its early stages. In this they exemplified perhaps the signature characteristic of American politicians: blame avoidance. When faced with a problem, most top politicians in both parties think first about how they can shift blame to others or appear the victim of circumstance. Halting the epidemic in its early stages would have required a lot of aggressive action before the need for it was clear — in a word, leadership. Politicians would have had to exercise power in a way that upset people, and carefully communicate why they were doing so. Instead they largely let events do their work for them — once outbreaks were underway and sports seasons were being canceled, they could impose lockdowns without risking a backlash. That cowardice killed tens of thousands of people. Only a handful of state governors, like Washington’s Jay Inslee, actually listened to their scientists and got out ahead of events.
Now multiple states are in the throes of accelerating outbreaks, and once again politicians are following events rather than anticipating them. Back in late May many experts warned California Governor Gavin Newsom that he was reopening the state too quickly, but under criticism from those who didn’t like lockdowns, he pushed forward. He largely left things up to county officials, many of whom are conservative goofballs who refuse to obey his authority. Now that reopening has plainly backfired — the state shattered its daily case record on both Monday and Tuesday — Newsom has belatedly threatened that counties that refuse to follow pandemic control guidelines may lose state aid. It’s a month late and a billion dollars short.
In Texas, Governor Greg Abbot has twisted himself in knots trying to avoid any kind of responsibility. He quickly rescinded his own order closing businesses when conservatives got mad, and refused to allow local cities to implement mandatory mask orders. Instead, he left a loophole allowing them to mandate businesses to require masks, but told nobody about it until a local judge actually tried it. Florida governor Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, is weeks behind the times. At time of writing he has merely promised he will actually enforce pandemic rules on bars and restaurants, and still has not mandated mask-wearing in public. Arizona is also way behind the curve.
Now, as Adam Tooze writes in Foreign Policy, the Federal Reserve is still at the center of the world financial system, and it is still functioning. Indeed, it has rescued much of the world from multiple currency crises, as it did in 2008. Though ordinary citizens in both America and elsewhere did not get the same kid-glove treatment, at least we have not seen a chaotic collapse of the financial system — which nobody else could have prevented. For the moment there is simply no one else to fill the shoes of the United States.
But countries around the world are no doubt grappling with some unpleasant truths. A nation that could elect Donald Trump is deeply, deeply sick. We are comparatively lucky that Trump appointed Jerome Powell chair of the Federal Reserve board (who turned out to be at least in possession of his faculties), instead of, say, Jared Kushner. When a country is as gangrenous as the United States, the rot tends to spread through its entire system sooner or later. So long as the Republican Party is not comprehensively defeated politically, and the Democrats do their utmost to avoid governing, it would be extremely foolish to rely in any way on American institutions. In years to come, our fellow democratic nations may start a containment strategy against the festering American polity so as to prevent its dysfunction from spilling over its borders, as they are now doing to stop the spread of coronavirus. If they have any sense, they’re already thinking about it.
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