The virus would be bad enough on its own. The pandemic now gripping much of the world is capable, based merely on science, of wreaking sufficient havoc on public health and the global economy to last several lifetimes.
But add to that some of the most deeply-seated components of American ideology, and you can see why the United States is positioned to feel the pain even more acutely than most other nations.
While much of Europe and Asia have implemented drastic measures to flatten the curve of infection and transmission, America has done what we always do. First, deny that what others around the world experience could happen here — something we believed for a long time before 9/11 too — and then bask in our bravado, satisfied that even if awfulness visits our shores, it will be no match for the red, white and blue.
Thus, the reassurance early on from national security advisor Robert O’Brien, to the effect that America has “the greatest medical system in the world,” and thus we had little to fear — a pronouncement that was untrue in both the first and second parts of the claim. Nevertheless it sure sounded confident, badass even, which is no doubt why O’Brien said it.
We have long believed we could defeat any enemy: Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, or a deadly illness that apparently failed to take Toby Keith seriously when he made clear where America would put its boot.
To which self-assurance the virus has replied, in effect, hold my beer, cowboy.
While it is tempting to blame Donald Trump’s venal incompetence for the current tragedy — and he certainly deserves plenty of criticism — it would be a mistake to do so and then believe culpability had been sufficiently assigned. The reasons for our current predicament are more systemic than that.
Don’t misunderstand: this president did several things tragically wrong, first and foremost, continuing to downplay the seriousness of the virus even after experts in the intelligence community briefed him in January that a pandemic was likely. By soft-pedaling the emergency at hand — a move thoroughly in keeping with Trump’s concerns for public image over public health — he indisputably made things worse than they needed to be.
His nonchalance delayed testing, social distancing, and the ramping up of equipment and protective gear purchases for health care providers. It also pushed back the timeline on the economic countermeasures that have now been taken to help stave off the financial apocalypse into whose face we are currently staring.
And as he petulantly delays assistance to states whose Governors have criticized him, or demands that such leaders “be appreciative” for aid before receiving it, there is little doubt that his temperament and ego needs have put millions at risk.
And yes, the right-wing echo chamber deserves its share of the blame too. For years they have stoked a pathological mistrust of mainstream media as operating from such liberal bias as to render them unworthy of being heeded on any matter. Most recently, with his “enemy of the people” shtick, Trump has escalated this mindless conspiracism to new levels. As such, if doctors on CNN say something, or an epidemiologist is quoted in the Washington Post, that’s enough for the MAGA cult to ignore it, or presume it the devious manipulation of some deep state operative looking for any way to bring down their Emperor God. For weeks, Limbaugh, Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and other ghoulish denizens of the Trumpian propaganda machine insisted the novel coronavirus was a hoax, just the flu, or hardly different from the common cold.
Still, beyond all this, there are things about American culture itself that deserve critical examination at this moment. Because unless we attend to these things, we will never be able to get ahead of such viruses in the future.
There are at least three essential Americanisms that enhance the risks to which we are exposed in times of crisis like this, and put us at higher risk than persons in other nations with which we like to compare ourselves.
The first is a kind of hyper-capitalism, which — unlike other market or mixed economies around the world — renders even health itself a commodity for which one must pay as opposed to a right to which all are entitled.
When health care is up for grabs in the market, its cost remains prohibitive for millions. Even if one manages to get a COVID-19 test for free, unless treatment is also free — from anti-viral drugs to hospitalization in an ICU to intubation and placement on a ventilator — many who are infected will avoid treatment until it’s too late. Or they will get treatment and then be billed tens of thousands of dollars, destroying their financial futures even if they get well.
In other nations that provide health care as a matter of right and obligation through state-run systems, cost does not stand in the way of treatment for those in need. Although Italy — a single-payer nation — has suffered dramatically from this virus, this is not because single-payer systems fail to make things better or even make them worse. Far from it. Italy’s higher death rates and totals are due to two factors owing nothing to inadequacies in their system.
First, Italy is an older nation than the United States and most others, in part because they have one of the highest life expectancies in the world. And that is evidence of the excellence of their health care system, not its weakness. Ironically, because Italy does such a good job delivering health care, its people are more likely to make it to the age where they are especially vulnerable to a pandemic such as COVID-19.
Second, Italians are more likely to live in multigenerational family settings, increasing the risk for transmission, particularly to the elderly. Such arrangements are also more common in Asian nations, unlike the U.S., where we tend to move away from parents at an early age and live apart from them, often at great distance and in areas with less population density. Italy has high death rates from this pandemic despite their superior health care delivery system, and our lower rates (thus far) could be even lower, were it not for a health system rooted in profit.
Another aspect of hyper-capitalism, which increases the risk of transmission during a pandemic, concerns our treatment of labor. Because most Americans enjoy no paid leave protections — and not even the assurance that their job is safe should they need time off for their own illness or that of a family member — many continued working in the early days of this crisis. This undoubtedly led to a more rapid spread of the virus than would have occurred if workers could have stayed home secure that their jobs would be there when the crisis passed, and that they would continue to receive income while sheltering in place.
Weak labor protections in the U.S., compared to the rest of the industrialized world, put millions in a terrible dilemma early on: either stay home for your health, go without income, and possibly lose your job, or continue working out of necessity and risk becoming ill. No one should have to make that choice, and among advanced economies, only Americans are forced to do so.
Finally, hyper-capitalism contributes to the desire to risk health so as to re-start the stalled economy, rather than take the approach of a nation like Denmark, which has shut down their economy and promised to pay workers to stay at home. In America, worship of the market and a disdain for the idea of a vibrant safety net makes such an approach unthinkable. The business of America is business, as the saying goes. And so long as Wall Street is concerned about cratering profits, the incentive will be to risk health and lives to keep production humming along.
Indeed, conservatives are insisting with increasing fervor that we should be willing to sacrifice the elderly and infirm for the sake of the economy — the kind of eugenic thinking that has led to some of history’s greatest atrocities. And all this because they would rather risk life and health rather than pay people to stay home and remain healthy until the crisis passes.
A second Americanism that puts us at unique risk, which is related to the first (but also operates somewhat independently), is hyper-individualism.
In the United States, more so than elsewhere, we revere the notion of self-reliance, having elevated the concept to the level of secular gospel, and the image of the “rugged individual” to saintly status. The idea that we are responsible for ourselves, and should not rely on others — or be compelled to help others via communal means like taxation — undergirds much of the philosophy of the nation and its culture.
On the upside, self-reliance can spur innovation and a drive for excellence that can produce substantial wealth and a higher standard of living. But there is a downside too: namely, it can engender a mindset that abandons all to their own devices, demonstrating little concern for the well-being of others, or recognizing the connection of individuals within a broader society.
The problem is, when we decide we are not responsible for one another and we need only look out for ourselves, we wind up especially vulnerable in moments of collective crisis. Your health does affect me, and mine impacts you. More than that, the health of people several states away or in nations on the other side of the world affects me because of trade, commerce, and global travel, all of which makes the spread of disease every bit as easy as the spread of technology and capital.
So whether or not I think, philosophically, that I should be taxed to ensure you have access to decent health care, or that the nation has a functioning public health infrastructure, doesn’t matter. What matters is this: if we don’t guarantee these things, everyone is at risk, and the silly libertarian thought experiments and online chat room debates won’t matter anymore.
Additionally, hyper-individualism leads millions of us to act as though we should be able to do as we please, go where we want, and how dare the government tell us to practice social distancing or self-quarantine. It’s a mentality that leads thousands to think of their spring break plans as more important than the virus they may bring back to their parents, grandparents, or co-workers after their vacation is over. Asked to stay inside, even many older folks are screaming about infringement of their “liberties,” so ingrained is hyper-individualism.
Only people who had been raised to elevate their individual needs over the collective good would act this way. And only in America is such a thing this common. More than that, it is a mentality especially evident among the most privileged of American groups: white men, and especially those who are middle class or above. After all, people of color and working-class folks have never felt the kind of entitlement that would lead them to assume they could go anywhere and do anything their heart desired. Racial profiling, discrimination, and economic privation have long constrained the freedoms of the black and brown or the poor and struggling of all colors. But for white men of relative class comfort, it’s as if asking for even the smallest sacrifice of their good time and mobility is tantamount to living in a police state.
Of course, it is precisely this hyper-individualism that now threatens so many of us. Unwilling to shelter in place until forced to do so — and even then, violating the practice to go to one of the 800+ bars that the NYPD found still open as of this week — these hyper-individualists are risking their health and the health of others.
Finally, the risks to the United States are driven upward by a third Americanism: hyper-religiosity, and especially hyper-evangelical Christianity.
It is not merely that the U.S. has a large number of Christians — so does Italy. But in America, evangelicalism leads millions of Americans to believe that they will be protected from things like viruses because of their piety. And so they insist on going to church on Sunday despite calls for distancing.
They rail against secularists and others whose faith is not strong enough in their minds for being “weak” and allowing Satan to keep them from worship services. They insist that trying to avoid coronavirus is for “pansies,” as has one Tampa pastor who prayed over and “laid hands” on President Trump in 2017.
They suggest the entire pandemic is a liberal hoax intended to destroy the president or even the church. So they encourage their parishioners to not only go to church but to shake hands, hug, and even lick the floors to shame the devil and prove their faithfulness. And they push for and receive exemptions from quarantine orders imposed on others.
They question the virology itself because for generations, dating back to the Scopes Monkey Trial, if not earlier, they have been in a battle with the scientific community they see as waging war on their Bible-based beliefs. They even insist that restricting ourselves from social interaction — especially the taking of communion, but even attending concerts or sporting events — is to capitulate to a “false God” of “saving lives” at all costs, which in turn is to allow Satan to win. Fear of death, on this account — or even fear of causing the death of another — is mere sentimentalism.
This kind of irrationality does not manifest nearly so often anywhere else in the industrialized world. It is the kind of anti-intellectual, anti-scientific backwardness one might expect from pre-modern peoples or cultists, not otherwise functional citizens of a wealthy and powerful nation. But here it is, and it has led religious leaders and evangelical politicians to downplay the threat of infection, no doubt leading to its spread.
In a nation where people think their religious liberty is squelched by the mere suggestion they should watch their church services online for a while or read their Bibles at home, it’s little surprise we’re having a hard time getting things under control.
And as Trump suggests the pews should be filled on Easter — because although he doesn’t likely know the Easter story himself, he knows his base will revel in the symbolism of resurrection — he magnifies the dangers posed by the hyper-religiosity that is our national hallmark.
Unless and until Americans take a hard look at these aspects of our culture that leave us uniquely vulnerable to public health crises such as this one, no president and no group of politicians will be able to protect us adequately. While individual leaders can make things better or worse in moments of turmoil and danger, the only way to truly lower the risks posed by things like COVID-19, or future threats, will be to rethink our health care delivery system, our labor market practices, our unthinking individualism, and our anti-intellectual hyper-religiosity.
Because so far as the to threat to Americans is concerned, the problem is not a “Chinese virus.” The call is coming from inside the house.