I spent many entries in The Pandemic Diary talking about the ways in which America was failing in response to COVID-19. And in the end we were, in fact, defeated. Pretty definitively by my reckoning. If and when we get out of this it will not be a victory after a long battle or a comeback of any kind. It will simply be a new beginning after our vanquisher has moved on in spite of our efforts.
Deeply ingrained American Exceptionalism has prevented most of the country from getting its mind around that. Around the notion that we were definitively beaten by this. But we were. And today the Atlantic published what will, in all likelihood, stand as the definitive assessment of how that occurred. The article, by Ed Yong, is entitled “How the pandemic defeated America.” It’s must-read material.
The central theme of the article is similar to the central observation many of us made going back to March or April: that America’s weaknesses and failures were already present and COVID merely exploited them. Yong’s article is much more detailed and comprehensive than most of our real time observations were, however. It’s important that all of it is put together so deliberately and so plainly in one place and he did an excellent job of it.
It’s a long article and you should take some time with it. In the meantime, though, here’s the upshot:
“[E]verything that went wrong with America’s response to the pandemic was predictable and preventable. A sluggish response by a government denuded of expertise allowed the coronavirus to gain a foothold. Chronic underfunding of public health neutered the nation’s ability to prevent the pathogen’s spread. A bloated, inefficient health-care system left hospitals ill-prepared for the ensuing wave of sickness. Racist policies that have endured since the days of colonization and slavery left Indigenous and Black Americans especially vulnerable to COVID‑19. The decades-long process of shredding the nation’s social safety net forced millions of essential workers in low-paying jobs to risk their life for their livelihood . . .
“. . .the COVID‑19 debacle has also touched—and implicated—nearly every other facet of American society: its shortsighted leadership, its disregard for expertise, its racial inequities, its social-media culture, and its fealty to a dangerous strain of individualism.”
I’ll observe that it‘s no accident that all of these weaknesses and failures — a shredded safety net, weakened government in all aspects except the military and policing, a capitalist healthcare system, disregard for minorities, and everything else here — track the platform of the Republican Party for the past 40+ years. A Republican party that, even when it was briefly out of power here and there, still set the course of the nation in ways that no party has done since FDR’s Democrats did in the 1930s and 40s. This is the America Republicans wanted. This is what they achieved.
The end product of that achievement: the fall of the American Empire.
That may sound dramatic, but I can’t think of any other way to characterize it. As I wrote in May, it seems inescapable to me that history will record the period of 2001-2020 as the time when America’s leadership in the world came to an end. Maybe we can quibble on the exact dates. Maybe we can talk about whether the fall began when we failed to adopt a coherent post-Cold War national ethos, maybe it was our horrifyingly violent and counterproductive response to 9/11, or maybe it was something else, but our disastrous failure in response to the COVID-19 Pandemic will undoubtedly stand as our Waterloo. The time when our fall became apparent, even if it was already in the works.
The sooner people grasp that — the sooner they accept that we have been defeated and understand why we have been defeated — the sooner we will be able to get to the business of remaking America. A better America. A morally and ethically stronger America. A just America. An America that instills pride in its citizens and which can stand, once again, as an example for the rest of the world.
(Featured Image: Tony Webster via Wikimedia Commons)