American exceptionalism is less about our unequaled wealth and power and more about the ideals our nation was founded upon and the rightness of our endeavors. There have been some less than exceptional moments for American exceptionalism.
Although Native Americans often gave as good as they got, eventually we were able to appropriate their lands and subjugate their culture. Although our founding documents provided for freedom and equality for all, blacks waited nearly 200 years to see those promises fulfilled. Recent “exceptions” include the roughly 80 million Americans lacking good health insurance and an educational system that leaves poorer students behind. While our national debt soars and our infrastructure crumbles, we face massive shortfalls in funding for Medicare and Social Security. We rank first in income inequality and near last in socioeconomic mobility.
So what does this have to do with the pandemic? As a physician, given only one test to judge a patient’s health, I would pick an exercise stress test. America is in the midst of an epic, tragic stress test that is giving us an unfettered view of the health of our people and our institutions.
So how have we done?
Let’s first look at preparation. The first case of the coronavirus probably occurred in Wuhan, a Chinese city of 11 million people, in late December. On Jan. 23, Wuhan was shut down. On the same day the WHO recommended that countries begin preparations for a pandemic. On March 12, the Trump administration ordered protective masks — its first useful act.
Donald Trump claims he saved thousands of lives with a Chinese travel ban on Feb. 3. Unfortunately over 300,000 potentially infected Chinese had already entered the country in January. What happened during those critical seven weeks?
Early on, Trump claimed the threat was a hoax perpetrated by the media, democrats, and the deep state. Later he claimed the infection was well controlled and would just go away on its own.
Experts say that early preparation could have contained the pandemic. This was done in South Korea and Singapore. An agency in the White House dedicated to pandemic planning, surveillance and management might have been a game changer. Actually, after the Ebola epidemic, President Obama created such an office. A year into the Trump administration, the office was eliminated. Caregivers dying due to a lack of protective equipment and an infection spinning out of control were the results of our poor preparation.
How about the response once the pandemic arrived? That it was chaotic is undeniable. Trump quickly handed responsibility for managing the pandemic to the states. Imagine if, when Japan attacked Peal Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt had chided Hawaii for its poor response and told the governors to begin their war against Japan.
There is only one branch of the government capable of leading and directing in such an emergency and that is the executive branch. One of the many results of this abrogation of responsibility was states bidding against one another, and even the federal government, for protective equipment and ventilators.
We are now into the third phase of this nightmare — reopening the economy. In mid-April, the Trump administration issued well-conceived guidelines for reopening. Relaxation of distancing guidelines would follow the fulfillment of two requirements. First, there needed to be a two week decline in new cases. Second, adequate testing needed to be in place.
This glimmer of competency was quickly extinguished as Trump encouraged protesters demanding immediate opening and declined to make the preconditions mandatory — probably because testing remains inadequate. The unwillingness of many Americans to fully participate in premature openings may reduce a likely resurgence in illness and death.
If we love this country and still feel that on some level it is exceptional, we need to seize this opportunity and change course. Each of those “exceptions” needs to be addressed. We need to redistribute wealth the American way, by ensuring opportunity, the underpinnings of which are food and health care security, a quality education and good paying jobs.
We are seeing the catastrophic consequences of electing a president who is anti-science, dismissive of truth and incapable of leadership and good governance. This should never happen again.
Douglas Douville, M.D., is a family physician currently working at a charity clinic in Salt Lake City. He was an Air Force physician for 20 years and was in private practice in West Valley City for 15 years.