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Can America Turn Our COVID-19 Failure into Some Sort of Success?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 25, 2020

From Ed Yong at the Atlantic, a great article on the current state of the pandemic in the United States, what will happen over the next few months, how it will end, and what the aftermath will be.

With little room to surge during a crisis, America’s health-care system operates on the assumption that unaffected states can help beleaguered ones in an emergency. That ethic works for localized disasters such as hurricanes or wildfires, but not for a pandemic that is now in all 50 states. Cooperation has given way to competition; some worried hospitals have bought out large quantities of supplies, in the way that panicked consumers have bought out toilet paper.

Partly, that’s because the White House is a ghost town of scientific expertise. A pandemic-preparedness office that was part of the National Security Council was dissolved in 2018. On January 28, Luciana Borio, who was part of that team, urged the government to “act now to prevent an American epidemic,” and specifically to work with the private sector to develop fast, easy diagnostic tests. But with the office shuttered, those warnings were published in The Wall Street Journal, rather than spoken into the president’s ear. Instead of springing into action, America sat idle.

Rudderless, blindsided, lethargic, and uncoordinated, America has mishandled the COVID-19 crisis to a substantially worse degree than what every health expert I’ve spoken with had feared. “Much worse,” said Ron Klain, who coordinated the U.S. response to the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014. “Beyond any expectations we had,” said Lauren Sauer, who works on disaster preparedness at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “As an American, I’m horrified,” said Seth Berkley, who heads Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. “The U.S. may end up with the worst outbreak in the industrialized world.”

If you’ve been reading obsessively about the pandemic, there’s not a lot new in here, but Yong lays the whole situation out very clearly and succinctly (he easily could have gone twice as long). The section on potential after effects was especially interesting:

Pandemics can also catalyze social change. People, businesses, and institutions have been remarkably quick to adopt or call for practices that they might once have dragged their heels on, including working from home, conference-calling to accommodate people with disabilities, proper sick leave, and flexible child-care arrangements. “This is the first time in my lifetime that I’ve heard someone say, ‘Oh, if you’re sick, stay home,’” says Adia Benton, an anthropologist at Northwestern University. Perhaps the nation will learn that preparedness isn’t just about masks, vaccines, and tests, but also about fair labor policies and a stable and equal health-care system. Perhaps it will appreciate that health-care workers and public-health specialists compose America’s social immune system, and that this system has been suppressed.

Aspects of America’s identity may need rethinking after COVID-19. Many of the country’s values have seemed to work against it during the pandemic. Its individualism, exceptionalism, and tendency to equate doing whatever you want with an act of resistance meant that when it came time to save lives and stay indoors, some people flocked to bars and clubs. Having internalized years of anti-terrorism messaging following 9/11, Americans resolved to not live in fear. But SARS-CoV-2 has no interest in their terror, only their cells.

I really hope that Betteridge’s law is wrong about that headline I wrote.