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America Failed Its Stress Test

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Masked individual locked inside

These are uncomfortable facts to contemplate: as of September 14, with 6,830,000 confirmed cases, the United States has had more confirmed Covid-19 cases than any other country in the world, and with 199,000 people having died from Covid-19 infections, we also have had the most deaths. America failed at controlling the pandemic.

It shouldn’t have gone down this way. We are a superpower; many consider ourselves to be the superpower. Our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the highest in the world. In 2019 it was 21 trillion dollars, which is 50% higher than the next highest country’s, China’s. We are spending 721 billion dollars on our military in 2020. In 2018, China only spent 170 billion on theirs. Russia spent less than that. No other country comes even close to our sheer economic and military might… as if money and guns were what made countries great.

With its authoritarian government and lack of transparency, China has been a favorite country to criticize. But China controlled the pandemic. Their total number of Covid-19 cases is a mere fraction of ours. To put this into perspective, more people have caught Covid-19 and died from the virus in Los Angeles County than the entirety of China throughout the whole pandemic. 

America failed. America failed to stop the virus from entering the country. America failed to prevent it from spreading, and now America failed at preventing it from surging back. The economic effects have amplified our pain. With millions still laid off, the unemployment rates staying at 10%, and America’s GDP being down nearly 10% from the beginning of the year; many have lost their health insurance and are also wondering how they will pay the rent. Learn more about how some have had to prioritize their health insurance over other bills.

Congress passed a 2.2 trillion dollar CARES Act, the most expensive bill in history, and it might not be enough. Subsequent and even larger pandemic relief bills are being debated in Congress. State government budgets are in upheaval. Our education system will soon be in shambles as hundreds of thousands of teachers are laid off and another round of remote learning comes, which leaves the poorest without schooling for a whole year. Readmore about this educational inequality. It’s a train wreck that is still happening and is still terrifying. 

It didn’t have to happen this way. Populated, democratic countries like Japan, Taiwan, and Korea never had the massive spikes we did. Developing countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia eventually reached zero community spread cases for many months straight. Democracies higher up on the Democracy Index, like New Zealand, kept the virus in check. Then there was Europe, which was such a hotbed of the virus for a month and that the United States issued a travel ban against it as well. But unlike the United States, after they flattened the curve, the resurgence hasn’t really happened, and now, ironically, American tourists are not allowed into most of the countries in the EU. 

America was woefully and despairingly under-prepared for the pandemic and the blame game started. Democrats blamed the Republicans. The Republicans blamed China. But the reasons for America’s failure run deeper, much deeper. 

We lacked imagination. Pandemics have been around from the beginning of time, but despite being the world’s superpower, America failed to have adequate safeguards against them and disregarded what past administrations learned and prepared during previous pandemics, which was despite the Spanish Flu, despite SARS and MERS, despite H1N1, despite Ebola, and even despite the outbreak in Wuhan. In our national consciousness, we still assumed it wouldn’t happen. We thought we were exceptional. We thought it would miss us or just not hurt us. We lacked the imagination to prepare for a probability. 

Pandemics are a threat to national security. However, instead of putting money into national security protocols to protect against pandemics, we have been building tanks and bombs, preparing for imaginary threats led by a fictional narrative that more money spent on defense makes America safer. In 2020, we will spend 721.5 billion dollars on the military, more than the next ten countries combined. And so we have 12 aircraft carriers in service while other countries have only two. We have 71 nuclear submarines as opposed to Russia’s 33. We have 3300 advanced fighter jets compared to Russia’s 1900 and China’s 1600. 

F-14 fighter jet

It is in the national consciousness that more weapons equate with better results, but history shows the premise is fatally flawed. So quick are we to forget that since World War II, despite American superiority, we have been plagued by stalemates and losses. We lost the Vietnam War. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are never ending

But the real enemy came as a virus unseen and literally undetected in late January and February of 2020. Our flawed priority has been exposed. While military spending increased, funding for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) Public Health Emergency Preparedness was reduced to $675 million, 0.1% of the military’s budget. 

The virus spread like wildfire. Testing was slow, and because testing was slow, the virus became impossible to do contact tracing. Only 445 tests were done by February 25th. When testing was finally being ramped up in March, the US opened their eyes, but it was too late. New York City was nearly overwhelmed, and their hospitals were likened to warzones with critical shortages of 75 cent N95 masks and other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). 

This nightmare should never have happened. In 2019, the U.S. spent 3.8 trillion dollars on healthcare, almost 20% of the GDP, more than any other developed country per capita. Another flaw in the system was exposed – our supply chain. 

After most of the nation went into lockdown, the U.S. had all the knowledge needed to control the pandemic. We knew that flattening the curve would be needed to stop our hospitals from being overwhelmed. The countries that successfully managed Covid-19 used masks, social distancing, and contact tracing. But messages from the government were mixed, state economies reopened without following CDC guidelines, and many guidelines became watered down and not enforced. So America’s overall Covid numbers plateaued and then increased again. Another flaw in the system was exposed – the inability to implement nationwide basic evidence-based guidelines. 

People in protective suits with patient on stretcher

For the U.S., there is no end in sight, but it could be much worse. From a historical perspective, Covid-19 is a relatively mild pandemic. In 2002 and 2003, another coronavirus, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), came into the United States from Asia with a 11% mortality rate according to the World Health Organization (WHO). MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) was a third lethal coronavirus that entered the U.S. in 2012 from Saudi Arabia with a 34% mortality rate. Between 2014 and 2016, the Ebola virus crossed into the U.S. from West Africa with a 50% mortality rate. All of these viruses pale in comparison to the plagues of old, like the septicemic plague that killed 100% of those untreated in the Black Death era. 

Public health researchers now estimate Covid-19 to have a fatality rate of between 0.5 to 1%, with treatment. Since it looks like we haven’t been able to contain it, we are lucky that Covid-19 wasn’t more lethal. But treatment is the key. The low estimated fatality rate of 0.5 to 1 % is precisely because people can be treated in hospitals and have treatments using blood thinners, steroids, the antiviral Remdesivir, oxygen, and ventilators with physicians carefully watching on. 

Looking at the statistics for cumulative hospitalizations, if the healthcare system were to be overwhelmed again, the fatality rate could be four to five times more than we are experiencing, which is a fatality rate similar to the Spanish flu, which caused the 1918 pandemic. There have been 5.4 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the United States. Even if ten times that number have already contracted the disease, that would mean more than 80% of the roughly 330 million Americans are still vulnerable to infection. There is still a possible scenario of having multiple major cities overwhelmed simultaneously, which would be apocalyptic. The curve needs to stay flattened. 

We are here at a crossroads.The pandemic is ravaging our country. Many countries have stopped it, but we could not. We, as Americans, need to reflect on what we did wrong, how to mitigate the damage done, and what to do next. Efforts to control the virus are intertwined with the future health of our economy. America needs change in how it has been dealing with Covid-19.

In the long term, Covid-19 may have been a blessing if we can learn from it and fix our system. It can help us be more aware of real, probable threats and put into place science-based solutions. Let us take this time to imagine the threats to our way of life, prepare, and do what we can to prevent them. The threats are numerous: pandemics, climate change, acidification and plastification of our oceans, asteroids, and all the others. If we can learn from our failures, perhaps, just perhaps, we can prevent the next big disaster.

Read more on the U.S. economy with how cutting taxes is bad for the economy or learn if Sweden’s approach to not shutting down the economy could have been implemented here in the U.S.