COVID-19: A Uniquely American Disaster

I’m a fan of America. Born and raised here, and there are a ton of things about my country that I love. However, having lived abroad for more than two years, and having non-Americans for in-laws, I’ve had the chance to see what America looks like from the outside. How we’re often thought of and portrayed. No real big surprises there: the way we’re thought of is often the way we’d like to think of ourselves, though many of the things Americans prize as virtues are looked on by non-Americans as vices. Problems instead of assets.

That said, the American approach to challenges has often been to fall back on the things that brought us together in the first place: the sense of rugged individualism that inspired people to turn their back on their native countries and go give their fortunes a shot in the new world. The same sense that spurred people to leave the colonies and keep exploring westward. When World Wars came up, we did the same thing. There’s a reason we idolized the cowboy for years, and why so many of us now idolize superheroes. (What, really, is the difference between the Avengers and the Magnificent Seven, other than the trappings? When a problem arises, a few hardy souls step up and take care of that problem right on. Is a classic western that much different than an Iron Man movie?)

But as much as I love those aspects of American life and recognize how well they served us throughout our history, they are making us struggle with our response to COVID-19 in a way that’s fairly unique across the globe. We literally have people killing security guards for telling them to wear a mask. At a time of crisis, when most countries seem to be coming together, we’re splintering further apart. I’ve seen people on both sides of the debate ridicule the other side. Dismissing their arguments entirely, and often with a nasty insult to go with it. Right now, we have a president who’s going around saying, “The country needs to open, because we need to get our economy back on track. Some people will die, but that’s what we have to do.” And a good chunk of Americans are cheering him on. (True, other countries have had struggles in a similar vein (I’m looking at you, Brazil), but we seem to be taking it to the next level.)

Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve accepted mass casualties as “part of the price of freedom.” Not in war, but in schools and everyday life. The right to own guns trumps the right to live without fear of being shot, apparently, something well discussed in this op-ed in the New York Times that just came out.

There has been a rush to normalize death in this country. I’ve seen memes shared many times over the past month comparing COVID-19 deaths to other deaths. Sure, they argue, the pandemic has killed 265,929 people in the world this year (as of right now), but 169,807 people have died from the seasonal flu. 586,521 have died of HIV/AIDS. 2,865,485 have died of cancer. The world doesn’t shut down for those deaths. Why should we shut down for this disease?

We watched in horror as the disease ravaged northern Italy, worried it would come here. It’s now killed more than 2.5 times as many people in our country as it has in Italy, but we’re apparently ready to get back to work. It’s the American way of life.

Right now, I believe the most likely scenario for the way forward in America is that we go back to “normal.” There’s a token effort to keep social distancing in place, but when faced with the decision between allowing more people to die from this and staying in an economic slump, we will choose the deaths.

I’m not trying to say I don’t understand the desire to choose death. A ravaged economy is going to be disastrous. (Though I will say that there’s a good chance it’s a false dichotomy, and we’re actually choosing between A: “a ravaged economy and death” and B: “a ravaged economy.” Believing a mysterious, often invisible disease will just be ignored, and that we’ll all go out and start buying things again and going to the movies and sports at the same rate we did pre-COVID-19 is, perhaps, a bit idealistic. We don’t know how deadly COVID-19 really is, but we seem hell-bent on finding out. Here’s hoping our “Bet it all on red” approach turns out to be lucky.)

I *will* say that the predicament we find ourselves in is one largely of our own making. Sure, you can finger point to China or Europe as much as you’d like, but we had months go by as we watched China deal with this disease. Plenty of time as we watched Italy go through it as well. We didn’t do a whole lot to prepare for it, other than buy a metric ton of toilet paper. And now we’ve got some leaders trying to tell us these deaths were inevitable. That we did our best, and that’s it’s only through their ineptitude that things weren’t worse. (Seriously. Trump makes Inspector Clouseau look like a genius sometimes.)

When you look at the response to this in Asia, you see a model of what might have been. Lockdowns were strictly enforced. Contact tracing kicked into gear. People went along with what they were ordered to do, and now they’re reopening and look like they’re going to avoid the economic meltdown that’s facing us. There’s a normal for them to go back to that doesn’t involve “Everybody gets COVID-19 and let’s just hope it’s really not that bad.”

There’s a way forward for us that doesn’t resort to that. It involves everyone in the country wearing masks and not shooting each other over the order. It means we actually take the time necessary to get on top of the disease and stay there. To be patient and understand some prevention now will pay off in the future. But I honestly don’t think we’re capable of doing that. I think we’re reopening, and we’re going to see a resurgence of the disease. But instead of locking down again, I think we’re going to see people shrug and revert back to the hopes-and-prayers-and-price-of-being-free mentality many have fallen back on for other tragedies. I don’t think other countries will follow this same path. Most of them will come up with a compromise their populace is willing to follow, but for Americans raised for decades upon decades with a “we’re the best and we’ll go it alone” mentality, I just don’t think it’s in our character as a nation to shift out of that lane.

I suppose the good news is we’ll see first hand how bad this disease can really get. If we’re lucky, and it’s not that bad, then only a few hundred thousand people will die. If we’re not lucky, then the deaths will be up past a million. But by the time it’s getting that bad, the brakes will be off the train, and we’ll all just get to watch as we careen down the mountain and hope for the best.

So the question we have to ask ourselves is, “Do we feel lucky?”

Quoting a Clint Eastwood line in the face of possible disaster? It doesn’t get much more American than that.


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