Gambling on American Exceptionalism in the Face of COVID-19
America has a COVID problem. It’s not just the case counts and deaths (the highest number of any country), or the President’s bizarre comments about injecting bleach, or even the lack of moral leadership. Instead, it’s a larger refusal to deal with the reality that this is a public health problem rather than a political one. And nowhere is this more evident than in the discussions around reopening the country.
The absence of federal leadership has led to a patchwork of reopening policies across American cities and states. As Georgia opens back up and California and New York remain locked down, the one unifying factor is the universal lack of testing.
No other country in the world has attempted to reopen without having widespread testing in place. China only recently reopened Wuhan after several months of a much stricter quarantine than has been implemented in the US, and widespread testing to catch and contain any new cases is a critical component.
The US is the global epicenter of the COVID-19 Pandemic, with more cases than any other country and accounting for a quarter of all deaths. Without widespread testing, it seems foolhardy to call this a reopening. Instead, it is the height of American exceptionalism: the desperate Hail Mary pass of conservative politicians worried about reelection prospects, a gamble and a wager on their part that lives count less than the economy.
Epidemiologists point to both current and historic cases for why reopening too soon is likely to launch successive waves of outbreaks. Historically, there are multiple examples from the 1918 flu to provide ample pause. When Denver relaxed restrictions under pressure from citizens and businesses, the result was a deadly spike in infections. Other cities saw similar results. During modern flu outbreaks, studies have shown that shutting schools for too short a period of time can actually fuel subsequent waves of illness by releasing vulnerable populations while the disease is still circulating.
Covid-19 is still very much a threat. There is no vaccine, and no approved therapeutic. Cases and deaths are still climbing in many areas of the country. There is no reason to believe that reopening can be done safely, or that it won’t result in more cases. Instead, it seems to be a decision to take risk rather than precaution.