Dystopia Journal #43: Pandemic Summer

Dystopia Journal #43: Pandemic Summer July 15, 2020

I may be an atheist, but when I try to describe how badly America has failed with regard to the coronavirus pandemic, the only metaphors I can come up with are biblical ones.

It’s Moses unleashing the ten plagues on Egypt. It’s Elijah stopping the rain. It’s Yahweh slaughtering tens of thousands of people because someone touched the Ark of the Covenant, or killing tens of thousands of people with a pestilence because David took a census, or flooding the world and drowning tens of thousands of people to cleanse his own sub-par handiwork. (The guy had anger issues.)

It’s not just the magnitude of the disaster that’s reminiscent of the Old Testament, but the timing. Under President Obama, we had eight years of relative peace and prosperity. Despite his own ignorance and haplessness, Trump could have coasted to reelection on the back of his predecessor’s achievements. And he almost did, until COVID-19 came along. That this plague struck now – at the worst possible historical moment, at a time when America has never been more lacking in leadership, more disorganized and divided, more ill-prepared, more vulnerable – feels very much like a judgment. (Needless to say, the Christian right-wingers who predict curses and disaster every time a Democrat is elected have fallen silent, despite an event that genuinely seems like it qualifies.)

The coronavirus was never going to leave us unscathed, but it didn’t have to be as bad as this. Many countries have gotten it under control, and a few have all but eradicated it. But the U.S. is charging blindly in the opposite direction. I predicted in April that it would be catastrophic for red states. But even taking that prediction into account, it’s hard for me to believe that we’ve failed so badly.

We’ve set one dismal record after another. On July 11, the U.S. notched more than 70,000 new cases in a single day. States like Florida (21 million people) are reporting more cases per day than the combined populations of China, Japan and the European Union (2.6 billion people).

In Florida, more than 40 hospitals have maxed out their ICU capacity. In Texas, patients are being left in emergency rooms and hallways for lack of ICU beds. In Arizona, doctors and nurses are sick, overworked, exhausted and terrified of how much worse it may become. The state is on the brink of activating triage protocols which will allow doctors to decide who gets a ventilator and who’s left to die.

Not coincidentally, the governors of these states are mini-Trumps who scoffed at epidemiologists and sat on their hands as the danger grew. At best, they issued half-hearted stay-home orders that lasted a week or two, but they wasted that time and made no other preparations. Predictably, as soon as the orders expired, the virus came roaring back. In some cases, they even overrode municipalities that tried to impose more stringent rules. Doug Ducey, Greg Abbott, Ron DeSantis: let their names live in infamy.

But most of all, the blame goes to the top. As recently as July 1, while cases were surging across the southern U.S. and Houston hospital staff were exchanging panicked messages, Trump was still claiming that the virus would “just disappear“. In a time of crisis, the president of the United States literally has no plan but to stick his head in the sand and hope for the problem to miraculously go away on its own.

Worse than mere inaction, Trump is actively making the situation worse. Because his bottomless pit of an ego can’t stand to go without crowds praising him, he’s been holding rallies in defiance of medical advice and common sense, and leaving sickness and suffering in his wake like a slug’s oozing slime trail. As expected, his underattended Tulsa rally turned into a superspreader event and caused cases to surge. Now he and his cronies are pressuring schools to reopen in the fall – in a few short weeks – with no guidance, no funding, and no plan to protect students or teachers.

Around the world, the U.S. is now a pariah state. So many countries have barred their doors against us that an American passport has become nigh-worthless. As this article sums it up:

Some [countries] are doing well, especially those that have decent bureaucrats, respect for science, and high levels of trust: South Korea and Taiwan, Germany and Slovakia, much of Scandinavia, New Zealand. Some countries are not doing well, especially those run by divisive populists on both the left and the right: Russia, Brazil, Mexico, and, of course, the United States. But even within this latter group, we stand out. Out of all these countries — out of all the countries in the world — the U.S. has the largest number of cases and the highest death toll. The U.S. isn’t merely suffering; the U.S. is suffering more than anybody else.

The European Union has decided to allow some foreigners to cross its borders now, but not Americans. Uruguayans and Rwandans can go to Italy and Spain, but not Americans. Moroccans and Tunisians can go to Germany and Greece, but not Americans. For the first time in living memory, Canada has kept its border closed with the United States. On July 3, the governor of the Mexican state of Sonora delivered the coup de grace: She announced the temporary closure of the border with Arizona and banned Americans from Sonoran beaches.

Over 130,000 Americans have already died, and in the months and years to come, tens of thousands more will be added to that total. That’s on top of the unknown number of others who will suffer long-term health complications; the millions of people who’ve lost jobs and health insurance, the kids missing out on education, the parents forced to drop out of the workforce, the businesses large and small going bankrupt.

And it was all so unnecessary. We now know that simple cloth masks are highly effective at protecting both yourself and others. With universal mask usage and a few other precautions, we could have gotten the pandemic under control and resumed something close to normal life by now. Even a minimal amount of leadership could have helped tremendously to make it happen. Instead, millions of Americans, especially conservatives, are engulfed in rage, paranoia and denial and are willfully refusing to take the simplest steps, ensuring that the spread will continue.

Not all the news is bad. There are a few bright spots: my state of New York has conquered its own outbreak and is doing very well, holding its positivity rate down to about 1%. I can testify that masking is near-ubiquitous in public. But I wonder how long this fragile normality can last. With the virus raging unchecked across most of the U.S., it seems like just a matter of time before infected people travel here from hot spots and touch off a new outbreak.

Another positive development is that the Oxford vaccine is moving into large-scale human trials. (They’ve had to recruit volunteers in the U.S., Brazil and South Africa because there aren’t enough infected people in the U.K. to get a clear idea of whether it works.) Moderna’s RNA vaccine is close behind.

As I’ve said before, this virus won’t be the end of civilization. It’s looking more likely that there will be a vaccine in widespread use by 2021. But in the interim, there will be so many deaths, so much suffering and so much damage that we didn’t have to inflict on ourselves. America will emerge from this weaker, more humbled, our economy in ruins, our reputation in tatters; and for that, we can thank Trump and the Republicans. It’s the most painful demonstration imaginable that elections have consequences.

Image credit: Felipe Esquivel Reed via Wikimedia Commons; released under CC BY-SA 4.0 license

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