A year later, U.S. lessons from Covid

President Joe Biden issued a mask mandate on federal property and launching a “100 Day Masking Challenge” on his first day in office.
President Joe Biden issued a mask mandate on federal property and launching a “100 Day Masking Challenge” on his first day in office. Photo credit: White House

A failure of leadership at the highest level and decades of neglect of public health infrastructure has cost the country dearly.

March 2020 had begun like any other month in the U.S. during a presidential election year. With Super Tuesday, usually the most important day in the primary calendar, falling on the third day of the month, and the college basketball season reaching its climax, many Americans were preoccupied with their two favorite March pastimes.

Even though reports of Covid-19 deaths in Italy and Spain were coming in daily, the significance of the pandemic had not registered in the nation’s psyche yet.

Everything would change within days. On the 13th of March, President Donald Trump declared the novel coronavirus, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and was first reported on in early January, a national emergency.

As the country and the world watched, the virus went on to ravage the United States over the next 12 months. It claimed the lives of more than 550,000 Americans and infected nearly a tenth of the U.S. population.

The economic costs were equally stark. At its peak, with tens of millions of Americans losing their jobs in a matter of a few weeks, unemployment went up to nearly 15 percent. According to the Pew Research Center, a third of adult Americans had trouble paying their bills last year.

Read more columns by Frank F. Islam

America’s collapse due to the virus had ripple effects around the world because of the country being a key engine of the global economy. Merchandise trade in North America plummeted by more than 20 percent, compared to 2019.

Now, after the one-year anniversary of Covid, social scientists, doctors and public health experts are trying to figure out why Covid devastated the United States, which spends more money on healthcare than any other nation, while many comparatively lesser developed countries were impacted much less negatively.

Does it have anything to do with the fact that many people in the developing world were exposed to less sanitary conditions and had developed greater immunity?

It will probably be years before there is a definitive answer to that question. What we do know currently is that: a failure of leadership in the U.S. at the highest level and decades of neglect of public health infrastructure has cost the country dearly.

It is highly unlikely that the pandemic would have spread the way it did if any President other than Donald Trump had been in the Oval Office. When the outbreak began, Trump, who survived an impeachment effort at the beginning of 2020, was preparing to run for reelection on an economy that he put on steroids with a huge tax cut enacted in 2018 which helped most Americans to some extent but disproportionately benefited the wealthy.

Even though he realized the deadly nature of the new pandemic which had been ravaging Western Europe, Trump underplayed it, seeing it as a potential threat to his re-election. Had he acted early enough, many fatalities could have been avoided.

The Trump administration also neglected the national security dimension of the disease. They did this by dismantling and significantly reducing the capacity of the Obama-era national security approach to fight pandemics

The second reason for the Covid devastation was the inadequacy of the U.S. public health infrastructure. Decades of progress in the public health sphere and a continuously rising life expectancy had lulled Americans into believing that pandemics were things of the past.

There are huge disparities in healthcare delivery in the United States that are linked to race and income. Minorities and poor Americans still lag far behind when it comes to access to healthcare. As a result, Covid impacted these segments disproportionally.

The Center for Disease Control  (CDC) and Prevention pointed out that factors such as discrimination, healthcare access and utilization, occupation, housing and gaps in educational, income, and wealth have contributed to increased risks for racial and ethnic minority groups to get sick and  to die from Covid..

Ironically, another factor that may have contributed to the greater prevalence of Covid in the United States is the much-celebrated American values, ethos and lifestyle.

The American character is defined by a fierce individualism and a suspicion of central authorities and big government. A large segment of the American society simply refused to heed warnings from the CDC and other federal agencies to wear masks, maintain social distancing guidelines and take precautions, such as avoiding crowds. Unfortunately, even Governors of large red states like Florida and Texas continued to ignore the disease even after it impacted their regions.

But the pandemic has also brought the best out of America. The nation led the world in the development and production of Covid vaccines, which hit the market in less than a year. So far, more than a fifth of Americans have received at least one dose of vaccine.

Another piece of good news is the United States now has a President who takes public health seriously and who understands the economic impact of the pandemic. Under President Joe Biden the vaccination production has picked up pace enormously and the country is now administering as many as 2.4 million shots a day. On the economic front, Biden secured the passage of a key $1.9 trillion stimulus bill from Congress that put money directly into the pockets of Americans – most especially those in the working class, small business owners, and socially and economically disadvantaged minorities.

There is still much work to be done but there is now a mobilization effort in place that did not exist nationally under the past president. The U.S. has not turned the corner yet on Covid but the corner is in sight. Most importantly, this administration will not let it disappear from sight until that corner is turned, the appropriate lessons are learned, and the necessary actions taken to prevent ever having to turn that corner again.

(Frank F. Islam is an Entrepreneur, Civic Leader, and Thought Leader based in Washington, DC.)

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