One million have died of Covid-19 in America. How did it happen? | Ross Barkan
One million have died of Covid-19 in the United States, a catastrophic milestone that has been reached despite the marvels of modern science and the wealth that runs through this country. More than two years into the pandemic, it’s hard to shock people any longer. One hundred thousand deaths, it seemed, attracted much more attention.
How did we get there ? How much of this mass death was preventable? These are questions we will be dealing with for many years to come. There are no simple answers. In order to have a fighting chance in the next pandemic, however, it behooves us to consider exactly what went horribly wrong.
First, it should be noted that America, among the advanced nations, was not alone in suffering a terrible loss from Covid. The UK and Italy have comparable death rates. Several waves have overwhelmed other European nations with superior health devices. Taming a pandemic is incredibly difficult and few countries have emerged unscathed.
Given America’s vast size and decentralized governance structure – federalism ensures that 50 states can often act like 50 nations – a zero Covid approach would have been impractical. Some liberals have looked enviously to New Zealand, an island nation smaller than New York, for advice, although even Kiwis eventually backed off from such sweeping lockdowns. China is currently trying to eradicate Covid by imprisoning millions of its own citizens at home and restricting travel abroad. The death rate from Covid remains low, but the social repercussions of such harsh policies will be felt for the rest of the decade, as more affluent Chinese citizens consider fleeing a country that no longer respects their civil liberties.
Yet there are clear failures unique to the United States. The aforementioned federalism has made national public health messaging and decision-making extremely difficult. Donald Trump, deeply unhinged and ignorant, was the worst possible president to sit atop such a bureaucracy. With little federal guidance, governors, mayors and county executives stood alone to set policy, grappling with a new virus that few truly understood. Some, like Jay Inslee in Washington and London Breed in San Francisco, have seized the opportunity, initiating early lockdowns at the right time and putting rational public health officials at the forefront of their pandemic responses. Others, like Andrew Cuomo in New York, failed miserably, dithering until it was too late.
Since the start of the pandemic, public health messaging has been deeply confused, with various self-proclaimed epidemiologists and experts, as well as government officials, taking to the internet to offer conflicting advice. In February 2020, as Covid began to spread across the United States, mainstream media and a significant number of officials were telling Americans to actively avoid wearing masks. The rationale – keeping high-quality masks for healthcare workers – did not justify telling ordinary people to ignore their common sense and the long history of masking during the 1918 flu pandemic.
The early months of the pandemic produced more policy nonsense from pundits who should have known better. Quickly, scientists learned that Covid was in the air, but parks and other outdoor spaces remained closed for months. As the virus ravaged New York, playgrounds across the Midwest were surrounded by red tape. Few states, liberal or conservative, emphasized the need for adequate ventilation in public and private buildings. More outdoor events, coupled with the wearing of masks, could have started a quicker return to normal as Americans were made aware of the importance of good air circulation. A hundred years ago, scientists and doctors knew that it was best to treat flu patients outdoors. Some municipalities have even continued outdoor education. For unclear reasons, these lessons have been lost over time.
The era of vaccines has brought more failures. Public health experts failed to understand that Covid would produce variants or mislead Americans about the nature of Moderna, Pfizer and J&J vaccines. Those who took vaccines for the first time were led to believe that Covid would simply stop spreading once they were vaccinated and all pandemic-era precautions could be removed. Dr Anthony Fauci and others have told the vaccinated they can band together unmasked without any fear of Covid infecting them again. What vaccines have done remarkably well is keep people out of hospital. But they were never launched that way – on the contrary, many thought they were magic potions that would make Covid go away – and the spike in breakthrough infections in the summer and fall of 2021 still has sowed mistrust. Fauci, who once called Covid an “unvaccinated” pandemic, could no longer plausibly say that as the Omicron variant tore through highly vaccinated places like New York.
Right-wing misinformation has condemned older Americans in Republican-leaning counties. Although Trump himself was a vaccine booster because they were developed under his administration, it was Joe Biden who administered them, and Republican demagogues activated the products of Operation Warp Speed. Conspiracy theories, fueled by the right, are undermining trust in vaccines. Conservatives rushed to unproven treatments. The Delta’s killer wave in 2021 came for Republican-dominated states that mistakenly thought Covid was just a problem for liberal big cities. Rural counties have suffered greatly.
Other lessons from the pandemic don’t fit neatly into left or right narratives. Few Democrats want to remember that it was Kamala Harris, during a 2020 vice presidential debate, who said she would hesitate take a vaccine if Trump were president. Months later, she would be taking doses of the same vaccines she was foolishly attacking for political points. The right cannot recognize that fewer Americans would likely have died if Trump had never been president.
It’s also possible that vaccine adoption in America would have been more widespread had greater options been offered and effective treatments been prioritized. Moderna and Pfizer both rely on mRNA technology not traditionally used in vaccines; their novelty has spawned conspiratorial thinking, particularly on the right. With J&J’s vaccine effectively off the market – the FDA severely restricted it due to a rare clotting risk – only mRNA vaccines are widely available until Novavax’s vaccine, which uses conventional protein technology, is lit later in the summer. In retrospect, it would have been beneficial for a proven pharmaceutical giant like Pfizer to produce a conventional vaccine to appeal to a wider range of Americans.
With new variants and inevitable future pandemics, Congress must authorize much more federal funding for good preparedness. Research must never stop – especially on medical treatments for Covid and other pandemic strains – and local health services must be properly supported. Hospital capacity needs to be increased where possible, especially in the wake of so many critical care facilities, in both small towns and big cities, filling up quickly during various waves.
A million people should never have to die from another pandemic. Not in America, a country built to do so much better.
Ross Barkan is a New York-based journalist. He is the author of Demolition Night, a novel, and The Prince: Andrew Cuomo, Coronavirus, and the Fall of New York.