The Coronavirus crisis is unlike anything we’ve experienced before. Not because it is, at least as yet, the worst crisis we’ve experienced. But because it affects each of us throughout the world, all at the same time. In this way, it is different even to major historic events such as the Second World War or 9/11. Some parts of the world were entirely removed from these events, but Coronavirus is everywhere. In this, it is unique.
COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, China and spread rapidly. With strict quarantine measures China seems to have stemmed the growing tide of new cases, capping the overall impact to just over 82,000 known cases and 3,322 deaths. The US is now home to the largest number of Coronavirus cases, with over 234,000 confirmed cases and 5,607 deaths. What comes next is anyone’s guess.
A crisis of this nature, precisely because it is unprecedented and shared by all parts of the globe in its impact, will bring forth a reckoning in its aftermath. People across the world will now see how the politicians, system, technologies and values of the United States did in contrast to those of Germany, the U.K., China and elsewhere. Is the US still the leader? Do we have a science-minded government and society that is well positioned to deal not only with COVID-19, but also the general threat of fast-spreading future pandemics? Are we capable not only of controlling the crisis at home, but reaching out to those nations of the world who do not have intrinsic capacity and are likely to be overwhelmed? Will the scientific breakthroughs come from the US or from elsewhere?
So far, it does not appear that we have handled this crisis in anywhere near an exemplary manner. Our politicians continue trading barbs and the system has not proved itself one which enables all sides to come together quickly in the greatest public interest. As Ed Young, writing for The Atlantic, puts it, “Rich, strong, developed, America is supposed to be the readiest of nations. That illusion has been shattered. Despite months of advance warning as the virus spread in other countries, when America was finally tested by COVID-19, it failed.”
Will we be able to muster the institutional and technological capacity to provide support to our medical professionals and those patients in need? We champion free market forces and tell the world that ours is a system superior to all alternatives. Yet, on the 27th of March, our President ordered large manufacturers to start producing ventilators under the Defense Production Act. Why did the President feel compelled to take this approach? The text of his order suggests that it was because manufacturers were “wasting time”. So, to many, this action messaged that central control trumps free market forces under difficult situations.
Is our economy strong enough to weather not only this crisis, but the recession that will come in its wake? After much political bickering, two failed attempts and several days of delay, an unprecedented $2T stimulus package was approved by Congress. We hope the outcomes it produces are positive but we cannot help but wonder what the long term implications of a nearly 45% increase in Government spending will mean for future budgets. Reductions in R&D, Defense or social support? The price will be significant, wherever we feel it.
Why has it come to this?
It is hard to argue that the US was well prepared going into this crisis. Most of this lack of preparedness has to do with two key, worrying trends that have taken hold in our country in the recent past. First, a rejection of science and second, a penchant for unilateralism.
Science is not only at the heart of progress, but it alone can provide solutions to Coronavirus and every other disease. Yet, in our country, science is under constant attack, specifically its teaching to our children. Take the theory of evolution, which is described by our National Science Teaching Association as “a major unifying concept in science”. By September 2019, more than a dozen bills had been presented in several states to weaken the teaching of not only evolution but other “controversial” topics; topics that are science and evidence based, but run counter to fringe dogma. The denial of widely-agreed conclusions of climate scientists at the highest levels of our governments are just one more example. In fact, just weeks ago the New York Times reported on Indur Goklany, an administration official who “embarked on a campaign” to “insert misleading language about climate change [..] including debunked claims that increased CO2 in the atmosphere is beneficial.”
But attacking well-established science does not stop with these broader examples. Inexplicably, in 2018 the White House eliminated a pandemic response team whose entire purpose of existence was to provide critical capacity and coordination in a situation like the one we find ourselves in today. We hear our leaders often repeat, “but who could have known?” Science could have known and did know. But we continued to ignore those who warned us. In a now-famous TED talk delivered in 2015, Bill Gates highlighted the very real threat of an influenza like pandemic; exactly what we are confronted with now. But government funding and actions were not consistent with building up our national capacity to respond to such a crisis.
By weakening science in our country we strengthen superstition and conspiracy theories. Can we afford to allow the superstition of anti-vaccers to put society at risk and expose us to known and yet-unknown diseases? This is not how a country that has led the free world since the end of WWII prepares its children for the future.
One of the most problematic elements of our response to COVID-19 has been the lack of testing in our country. Up until only a few days ago the per capita testing rate in the US was one of the worst among developed countries. The reason why has to do, at least in part, with our desire to shun cooperation and go it alone. The World Health Organization had already developed test protocols for Coronavirus and shipped tests to 60 countries by the end of February. Yet, a sufficient number of tests are not available in the US even today. Why didn’t we have these tests? Politico interviewed dozens of viral-disease experts and concluded that, “Why the United States declined to use the WHO test, even temporarily as a bridge until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could produce its own test, remains a perplexing question and the key to the Trump administration’s failure to provide enough tests to identify the coronavirus infections before they could be passed on.”
Perplexing indeed. Or perhaps part of our unilateralist tendencies which have resulted in the United States refusing to ratify the Kyoto protocol, berating NATO allies, asking for financial support to base troops in the Middle East and many other such inexplicable positions that make us seem selfish and uninspiring.
As we grapple with these issues and wonder why things stand where they do, we must also realize that people all over the world are watching and wondering what happened to the United States. The opinions they form now will determine how they see us tomorrow. As a leader, or as a nation that has lost its way.
There are many questions about the veracity of Coronavirus case numbers being reported from China. There are also reports of many of the tests the Chinese have delivered to nations such as Turkey, not functioning as advertised. But despite all this, an unprepared US is seen “scrounging up sorely needed supplies” from nations the world over, while China continues to ship medical teams to Italy, Iran and many other countries. The Prime Minister of Serbia addressed a press conference on the 16th of March and made surprisingly direct remarks, voicing what many around the world might be thinking:
“I sent a letter to President Xi, in which for the first time I officially called him not only a dear friend but also a brother, and not only my personal friend but also a friend and brother of this country [..] We will be begging [the Chinese] to come and help us with everything.”
Once it passes, perhaps foreign policy experts and our political and military leadership can introspect and determine just who gained faith in the United States as a result of our handling of this crisis.
In a post-Coronavirus world, countries will need to rethink their systems of administration and organization. They will look for templates of concepts and techniques that are proven to work. They will look at the United States. They will look at China. With whom will they be impressed and who will they seek to emulate? I continue to believe in and cherish our democracy, our freedoms and the science and engineering of generations past that allowed the United States to be what it is today. But we are squandering what we have. Leadership is not a birthright. It is a choice we must make every day.
- Substantial undocumented infection facilitates the rapid dissemination of novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) – Science Magazine
- England coronavirus testing has not risen fast enough – science chief – The Guardian
- Coronavirus Tests Science’s Need for Speed Limits – The New York Times
- Trump Falsely Distorts New York Times COVID-19 Science Story – FactCheck.org
- This is the brightest supernova ever seen – Science Magazine
- Coronavirus Today: Science will save us – Los Angeles Times
- Italians stuck at home are measuring light pollution for ‘science on the balcony’ – TechCrunch
- ‘Oumuamua might be a shard of a broken planet – Science News
- College of Arts and Science converts thriving academic programs to departments – Vanderbilt University News