America's epic fail
James Rae

Editor's note: James Rae is a professor from California State University Sacramento. He was also a Fulbright Scholar at Beijing Foreign Studies University from 2017 to 2018. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt reportedly condemned the botched American response to the novel coronavirus crisis on his podcast Reimagine with Eric Schmidt, calling it "a failure of leadership at pretty much every level of our government." Indeed, this is an epic failure of global and historical proportions.

This fiasco is so complete and comprehensive that it has triggered a cascading series of crises that are too complicated and far-reaching to even ponder. For instance, with Americans sitting at home glued to their tv and the internet, the racial inequities in policing moved to center stage with the killing of George Floyd. The subsequent protests and violence have destabilized the country.

Meanwhile, the closure of on-campus education will likely result in the financial collapse of many private colleges while also undermining the integrity of K-12 public education, with parents flocking to private or home school options. Urban spaces are losing population, mental health issues are rising, and people are getting sick and dying. Of course, some industries and some people will adjust and find new opportunities and perhaps make long-needed reforms. The ripple effects will travel far and wide, and a decade or more from now we will look back to measure the damage.

For now, many inside and outside the United States are trying to understand how the world’s largest economy, the dominant actor in global politics, has been brought so low by such a small foe, a tiny virus. Of course, this was a highly infectious novel or unique virus that has exceeded expectations of its transmissibility. Nevertheless, East Asia has largely returned to normal, while Europe and other infected areas have greatly recovered. The Americas remain the hot zone, and the United States itself offering the worst response among all the world's developed countries.

Schmidt is surely right that this failure is connected to poor public health infrastructure and a lack of integrated systems data, and a lack of leadership from the federal to state and local government. Beyond that, the American public, media, and culture itself are also central to this failure.

A patient is wheeled out of Elmhurst Hospital Center to a waiting ambulance in New York, U.S., April 7, 2020. /AP

A patient is wheeled out of Elmhurst Hospital Center to a waiting ambulance in New York, U.S., April 7, 2020. /AP

First, the American people and American culture. Americans live in a highly ideological and partisan public space. Much like the famous American children's tale Sneetches where those with stars and those without stars mercilessly judge each other, the medical mask has become the star from that story, symbol of status and political persuasion - masks on renounce Donald Trump, no masks support him. Those deeply suspicious of the government often hold a strongly anti-science orientation fused with a populist anti-elite attitude that allows one to quickly and confidently dismiss any "expert" point of view as inherently wrong. The contrasting community offers instead the mask as self-righteous virtue signaling, prideful of their altruistic care to not infect others and steeled with a belief in their knowledge of the data and risks.

Ironically, masks and social distancing are pretty easy fixes, but have not been sufficiently adopted. Beyond that, mitigation efforts require a robust system of contact tracing, which as issues of culture and technology, neither lent themselves to an adequate response. Moreover, most all Americans share a non-conformist position, desirous of their independence and personal autonomy, impatient for results, and thus unwilling to submit to a true lockdown.

Relatedly, the media did no favors, as they are so engrained in the current binary framing of American society. Trustworthy, neutral, and independent sources of news are almost completely absent. And even if they were more prevalent, would anyone watch them? Many get by on no news at all, some may have even been unaware of the virus itself before wandering into a store that had a mask policy. Intentionally misleading information finds its way into traditional, new, and social media. Confirmation bias is widespread, the public claims support from random bits of news cherry-picked from unreliable sources or is unable to digest and interpret more complex medical studies and their data (aside from White House official Peter Navarro who claimed the ability to decipher medical reports owing to his political science degree).

Instead, the media cheerleads one point of view, or mocks the outliers. California's governor Gavin Newsome was a technocratic hero for closing the state just days before New York and New Jersey, before opening "too quickly" in June and saw infection rates skyrocket. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York was lauded for his press briefings and matter of fact style, while overseeing the worst outbreak in the country and ignoring the obvious risk to elder care homes where death rates spiraled out of control under his watch.

Protesters rally against county's shelter-at-home order at Los Angeles City Hall, California, U.S. /AFP

Protesters rally against county's shelter-at-home order at Los Angeles City Hall, California, U.S. /AFP

And then came the president and the federal response: conspiracies, denials, ignorance, mixed messages, in-fighting. An absolution of leadership so complete that it has amounted to simply waiting for a vaccine. The litany of failure too long to even recount, but if ever there was a need for central leadership, coherent leadership, that window was pushed open from March through July, and no response came. Remarkable. A president who frames his leadership as getting things done and favoring law and order did virtually nothing.

So, yes, government failed at almost every turn. States opened much too early, changing their adopted standards, definitions, and policies to get the economy going as soon as possible, before infection rates were at or near zero, as most countries in Europe and Asia had done. While some claimed they would quarantine new arrivals, states are not detached political communities, their borders are open in the federal system, people can move across them, enforcement is and was rare.

So, while America waits for vaccine, even rushes a vaccine, we can wait for the next chapter to open. What about Russia's vaccine? What about the vaccines from China? What if Europeans make one first? What then? And, what about polls that suggest 30 percent, perhaps 50 percent of Americans do not plan on taking that vaccine. Will it be mandatory? Will all states enforce it, or will the federal government, neither, some but not others?

This failure is so damning that we can only compare it to another similar collapse of a decade ago. The 2008-09 Financial Crisis undermined the Washington Consensus of neoliberal prescriptive conditionalities and principles, and served as catalyst for the arrival of China and Asia as global player while humbling Western and American power. The COVID-19 response has elevated Asia once again, as a collection of similarly situated societies with governments that can coherently and effectively resolve a problem and a public willing to accept those policies out of awareness of the medical and scientific ramifications, a sense of civic-mindedness and collective spirit, and tolerance for (short-term) suffering to achieve rejuvenation and progress.

More than an indictment of the West, it has exposed American weakness and warts, from top to bottom, far and wide. Faith in the United States both inside and outside has been dramatically challenged, a change of leadership promises only modest hope for improvement. But the first step in curing the patient is to accurately diagnose the problem. Unfortunately, it is neither benign nor acute but systemic, structural, and long-term. And good doctors are in short supply.

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