If you’re lucky enough to live in New Zealand, the coronavirus nightmare has been mostly over since June. After more than two weeks with no new cases, the government lifted almost all restrictions that month. The borders are still shut, but inside the country, normal life returned.
It’s coming back elsewhere too. Taiwan, where most days this month no new cases have been reported, just held the Taipei Film Festival, and a recent baseball game drew 10,000 spectators. Italy was once the epicenter of Europe’s outbreak and remains in a state of emergency, but with just a few hundred new cases a day in the whole country, bars are open and tourists have started returning, though of course Americans remain banned. According to The New York Times’ figures, there were 321 new cases in all of Canada last Friday.
And America? We had 68,241. As of last week, the worst per capita outbreak on the planet was in Arizona, followed by Florida. The world is closed to us; American passports were once coveted, but now only a few dozen nations will let us in. Lawrence O. Gostin, professor of global health law at Georgetown, told me he doesn’t expect American life to feel truly normal before summer 2022. Two years of our lives, stolen by Donald Trump.
As our country plunges into a black hole of unchecked illness, death and pariahdom, the administration is waging a PR war on its own top disease expert, Anthony Fauci, trying to convince news outlets that he can’t be trusted. “The move to treat Dr. Fauci as if he were a warring political rival comes as he has grown increasingly vocal in his concerns about the national surge in coronavirus cases,” reported The Times.
Trump has also undercut the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, retweeting the conspiratorial ramblings of former game show host Chuck Woolery: “The most outrageous lies are the ones about Covid 19. Everyone is lying. The CDC, Media, Democrats, our Doctors, not all but most, that we are told to trust.” There are now so many stories of Trump fans dying after blithely exposing themselves to the virus that they’ve become a macabre cliché.
Gostin was part of the international panel that put together the Global Health Security Index, a report, released last year, that evaluated the pandemic readiness of every nation on Earth. No country, they found, was as prepared as the United States. But the coronavirus, he said, has shown us that “health system capacity alone is almost useless unless you have a government that can unleash that capacity promptly and consistently.”
America has long fancied itself a swaggering colossus. It will likely emerge from this calamity humbled and decrepit.
Not all experts are as pessimistic as Gostin. Andy Slavitt, a senior health official in the Obama administration, has argued that with better tests, therapies and an eventual vaccine, life could broadly improve as soon as next year.
Others caution against making predictions. “We want to be able to give some assurance of, ‘Life will not always be this way, and it will be over soon,’ but we don’t know when that will be,” said Nicolette Louissaint, president of Healthcare Ready, an organization established after Hurricane Katrina to strengthen the health care supply chain for disasters.
But we know that the CDC forecasts total deaths from COVID-19 to rise to as many as 160,000 just by the end of the month. Many times that number will have long-term medical complications, and a record 5.4 million people lost their health insurance between February and May. A generation of American kids will have their educations derailed, and many parents who don’t lose their jobs due to the economic crisis will see their careers ruined by the demands of child care.
The country’s international humiliation is total; historians may argue about when the American century began, but I doubt they’ll disagree about when it ended.
The psychological fallout alone will be incalculable. Even before the coronavirus, researchers spoke of loneliness as its own epidemic in America. A March article in the medical journal JAMA Psychiatry attributed 162,000 deaths a year to the fallout of social isolation. Now people are being told that they can socialize only under the most stringent conditions. Much of what makes life sweet is lost to us, not for days or weeks, but months or years.
“We’re going to stagger out of it; we’re not going to snap back,” Gostin said of the pandemic. He added, “It’s going to take several years for us to be able to come out of all of the trauma that we’ve had.”
Yet somehow there’s no drumbeat of calls for the president’s resignation. People seem to feel too helpless. Protesters can make demands of governors and mayors, especially Democratic ones, because at the local level small-d democratic accountability still exists. Nationally such responsiveness is gone; no one expects the president to do his job, or to be held to account when he doesn’t. That’s how you know the country was broken before coronavirus ever arrived.
This suffering, your suffering, wasn’t inevitable. The coronavirus is a natural disaster. The Republican Party’s death-cult fealty to Trump is wholly man-made.
Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.