Yet these controversies and others were soon overshadowed by the events that unfolded in the first half of 2020. Within the space of a few months, the nation found itself drawn into two crises whose underlying causes threatened its health, wealth, and perhaps its very existence as a democratic republic.
The threat seemed distant at first. On the last day of 2019, officials in Wuhan, China, publicly reported that doctors were treating dozens of patients for pneumonia, an infection of the lungs, caused by an unknown virus. The first death, reported two weeks later, was that of a 61-year-old man. At that point, news headlines in America were focusing more on massive wildfires in Australia, which killed an estimated 1 billion animals, and several dozen people, and forced thousands of Australians to flee for their lives through heat, smoke, and flames.
By the end of January, Chinese officials had closed off the entire city of Wuhan, and the World Health Organization declared a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” The disease, which scientists named COVID-19, was caused by a new strain of the coronavirus. Health experts called for immediate action. People had to be tested to see how far the virus had spread. They needed to “shelter in place”—essentially, stay home as much as humanly possible—to keep the infection from spreading. One particular danger was that people who showed no signs of illness could spread the infection.
For older people and those with existing health problems, COVID-19 could be ruthless. Most people experienced only mild symptoms, such as fever or a cough, or no symptoms at all. But others found themselves fighting for life as their lungs filled with fluids. Over time, doctors discovered that coronavirus infections could lead to complications such as stroke, heart attack, and kidney failure.
Read: How the pandemic will end
Scientists and some high officials in the Trump administration recognized by late January that the new disease was far more serious than the ordinary flu. They warned privately that COVID-19 could evolve into “a full-blown pandemic,” spreading across the globe and endangering “the lives of millions of Americans.” But President Trump downplayed the danger. “We have it totally under control,” he insisted. He restricted travel from China, but by then, COVID-19 had already spread to Europe and was making its way to the United States from there.
The virus hit many areas across the country hard, including Washington State, California, and Arizona. New York City had a particularly bad outbreak. By April, the city’s hospitals overflowed with coronavirus patients. “Walking made me lose my breath,” reported one man. “I was just gasping. It felt like drowning.” All over America, doctors, nurses, and paramedics worked day and night, wearing gowns, goggles, and face masks to keep from being infected. Some were forced to see patients with completely inadequate protection, because of a failure of hospitals and the government to secure needed supplies. Thousands upon thousands of ventilators were needed—machines used to supply oxygen through tubes inserted down patients’ throats. By late May, more than 100,000 Americans had died from the disease.