The American Infection

People walk in Times Square following the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, March 16, 2020. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

The Europeans did a much better job of controlling the coronavirus than we did, and they don’t want us spreading it there.


hina. Cuba. Uganda. Check. The United States of America? Not so fast, there.

Keeping up with the Joneses? When it comes to the coronavirus epidemic, the United States cannot even keep up with those — what did Donald Trump call them? — humid struggling countries that Americans rarely condescend to take notice of.

Americans, along with Brazilians and Russians — that’s the company we keep now — are on a list of those who are to be excluded from entering the European Union as its member countries begin opening themselves up to travel again. What is concerning Brussels is this: The EU countries are seeing, on average, 14 new coronavirus cases daily per 100,000 population. The Russians are seeing a lot more: 80 new cases daily per 100,000. And in the United States, we currently are seeing 107 new cases daily per 100,000 population, just short of eight times the EU rate of infection.

The EU criteria are pretty straightforward: If a country is on average in comparable shape to the “EU+ area” (meaning the Schengen states plus non-EU members Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland) or in better shape, then the “welcome” mat will be rolled out; if a country is in much worse shape — say, seven or eight times worse shape — then Europe is not open for business. “No Vacancy.” Countries are judged on rate of new infections plus trends in testing, contact tracing, and the like.

The European Union’s and the United States’ responses to the epidemic were in some ways similar and important ways dissimilar. In the EU, they talk a great deal about “solidarity,” and the major institutions of the EU would have liked to have implemented and led a coordinated European response to the novel coronavirus. As is turns out, the European Union is less of a “United States of Europe” than some of its members had thought (or hoped) it to be, and rather than a coordinated European response there was an uncoordinated series of national responses. Suddenly, there were once again national borders in Europe, and they were closed across the Schengen Area. Rather than Brussels, the member states took the lead, and the EU response was secondary and supplemental. This will have important long-term consequences for that “solidarity” that Europeans talk about, which already has been tested sorely by first the sovereign-debt crisis and then, especially, by the refugee crisis.

In the United States, conversely, the states looked immediately to Washington for guidance in the earliest days of the outbreak, to institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and to the Oval Office, where President Trump initially treated the epidemic as a problem primarily for the stock market to be solved via Twitter. Those national institutions were able to provide only limited direction and assistance, and most of the day-to-day responsibility for managing the crisis fell to state and local governments, as, indeed, it ideally should. The member states of the European Union, being national governments, were inclined and able to direct their own efforts with relatively little input from Brussels; in the United States, the notional “dual sovereignty” of the several states and the union is less and less a reality and more and more a myth with each passing year. As Washington increasingly dominates our national life, what can be done effectively and independently in Sacramento or Austin is necessarily diminished.

Worse, the United States has generally less effective government institutions at all levels than do the member states of the European Union. Our largest city was crippled by an almost entirely incompetent response to the epidemic under the so-called leadership of Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo. But that shouldn’t be any surprise: It also costs New York 40 times as much to build a mile of subway track as it costs in Madrid. It is not a certainty that reasonably well-trained monkeys could do a better job governing New York than de Blasio does, but it is a lively possibility.

New York is not entirely alone. In such large and politically different states as California, Texas, and Florida — our most populous states — new cases are increasing at an alarming rate. At the beginning of the crisis, Washington plainly was more worried about a recession than an epidemic; now, in the middle of the crisis, there is intense pressure to try to return things to normal in order to avoid even more severe economic consequences. But if the epidemic goes uncontrolled, the economic consequences are going to be severe. We won’t have evaded the public-health catastrophe or the economic catastrophe. Texas, which was eager to reopen, is in retreat, with Governor Greg Abbott declaring a “pause” in the attempt at normalization.

There is political hay to be made, of course. There has been a concerted effort to make Florida’s Republican governor the poster boy for incaution, but lefty California is in much the same boat. And surely Americans need no Brussels-style lectures on “solidarity”? Well: They are closing the borders in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey, imposing a 14-day quarantine on arrivals from coronavirus hot spots such as Texas, which imposed in March a quarantine of its own on New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington, and California.

If the United States resembles Brazil and Russia in our coronavirus response, it may be because we are coming to resemble those countries in other ways as well: big, sprawling, corrupt, possibly ungovernable, ensorcelled by nationalist nonsense, resentful, inward-looking. A world long accustomed to American leadership during times of genuine global crisis is not looking toward Washington with hope or expectation but with pity and contempt. In some countries, they will see scandal in our institutional failures. In others — in Beijing, for instance — they will see opportunity. Perhaps we will rally and show that we are, after all, up to the task. But there are few reasons for optimism right now.

In this crisis, the European Union has shown itself to be a non-union of functioning states, while the United States has been revealed as a union of non-functioning states. It is an imperfect comparison, but an illuminating one.

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