In 1847, members of the Choctaw Nation sent relief money across the Atlantic to a starving Ireland — something the Irish, who lost more than a million people in a famine made worse by British indifference, have never forgotten. The Irish are now giving financial aid to Native American tribes hit with a pandemic that has been made worse by American incompetence.
This is a gracious act, a boomerang of good will, as reported by my colleagues Ed O’Loughlin and Mihir Zaveri. But it also shows how much of the world has started to feel sorry for a nation laid low by the lethal ineptitude of President Trump.
“The country Trump promised to make great again has never in its history seemed so pitiful,” wrote Fintan O’Toole in The Irish Times. And he asked: “Will American prestige ever recover from this shameful episode?”
Before we take up O’Toole’s question, let’s look at where we rank in the worst global crisis since World War II. In Trump’s assessment, his government has done a “spectacular job” with the Covid-19 pandemic.
“And I’ll tell you, the whole world is excited watching us because we’re leading the world,” he said, in an updated pat on the back this week.
He’s right about the leading part: Every 49 seconds or so, throughout the first week in May, an American has been dying of this disease. With 1.3 million reported cases, the United States, just five percent of the world’s population, has nearly 33 percent of the sick. With more than 75,000 deaths, we’re at the front of the pack as well. No country comes close on all three measures.
Globally, the average death rate is 34 people per million residents. In the United States, it’s more than six times higher — 232 per million.
South Korea and the United States both reported their first cases of Covid-19 at the same time, in the third week of January. South Korea immediately started testing on a mass scale and socially isolating. The United States denied, dithered and did next to nothing for more than two months.
By the end of April, new cases in South Korea were down to less than 10 a day. In the United States at that time, the pandemic raged at a daily rate of more than 25,000 newly sick. New Zealand, which also quickly went into lockdown, reported no new cases earlier this week for the first time since mid-March.
“The United States reacted like Pakistan or Belarus, like a country with a shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering.” That’s the indictment of The Atlantic’s George Packer, calling the United States a failed state.
He’s half right. As scientists note, you can’t stop an outbreak from happening, but you can stop it from becoming a catastrophe that brings down a society. The United States spends more on health care, per capita, than any other rich nation. And yet, here we are: a full-blown disaster, in lockdown with a narcissist for a president.
A country that turned out eight combat aircraft every hour at the peak of World War II could not even produce enough 75-cent masks or simple cotton nasal swabs for testing in this pandemic.
A country that showed the world how to defeat polio now promotes quack remedies involving household disinfectants from the presidential podium.
A country that rescued postwar Europe with the Marshall Plan didn’t even bother to show up this week at the teleconference of global leaders pledging contributions for a coronavirus vaccine.
A country that sent George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower to crush the Nazis now fights a war against a viral killer with Jared Kushner, a feckless failed real estate speculator who holds power by virtue of his marriage to the president’s daughter.
Let’s not put too much of the blame on Kushner. After all, he’s also got Middle East peace, the border wall, the opioid crisis and reinventing the government on his plate. “Who’s in charge of it?” Trump said recently, about the “Warp Speed” vaccine development program. “Honestly? I am. I’ll tell you, I’m really in charge of it.”
Well, then: Where is the test and trace program needed to safely reopen the country? Where is the national plan even to consider such an effort? Trump has surrendered. He never looked smaller or more pathetic than when sitting last Sunday on his little chair in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
America has a failed federal government, laughed at and pitied the world over. But America is not a failed state. It will be saved by its scientists and doctors, its hospitals and universities, its nimble and creative companies, and leaders in the statehouses who act more decisively than the family of frauds in the White House.
Perhaps it is best to let the coronavirus task force die a miserable death. It’s mostly show and ego projection.
As to the Irishman’s question: Will American prestige ever recover? Not for some time. Our image abroad took a real hit after Trump’s election, and it has continued to fall. Most of the world now has no confidence in the president’s leadership.
But then, the same is true with most Americans. Welcome to our nightmare.