The coronavirus pandemic is in its early days. But the scale and force of the economic and medical crisis that is about to hit the United States may turn out to be as formidable as Perry’s famous voyage was. Two weeks ago—it already seems like an infinity—I was in Italy, writing about the first signs of the virus. Epidemics, I wrote, “have a way of revealing underlying truths about the societies they impact.” This one has already done so, and with terrifying speed. What it reveals about the United States—not just this administration, but also our health-care system, our bureaucracy, our political system itself—should make Americans as fearful as the Japanese who heard the “distant thunder” of Perry’s guns.
Not everybody has yet realized this, and indeed, it will take some time, just as it has taken time for the nature of the virus to sink in. At the moment, many Americans are still convinced that, even in this crisis, our society is more capable than others. Quite a lot was written about the terrifying and reckless behavior of the authorities in Wuhan, China, who initially threatened doctors who began posting information about the new virus, forcing them into silence.
On the very day that one of those doctors, Li Wenliang, contracted the virus, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission issued a statement declaring,“So far no infection [has been] found among medical staff, no proof of human-to-human transmission.” Only three weeks after the initial reports were posted did authorities begin to take the spread of the disease seriously, confirming that human-to-human transmission had in fact occurred. And only three days later did the lockdown of the city, and eventually the entire province, actually begin.
This story has been told repeatedly—and correctly—as an illustration of what’s wrong with the Chinese system: The secrecy and mania for control inside the Communist Party lost the government many days during which it could have put a better plan into place. But many of those recounting China’s missteps have become just a little bit too smug.
The United States also had an early warning of the new virus—but it, too, suppressed that information. In late January, just as instances of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, began to appear in the United States, an infectious-disease specialist in Seattle, Helen Y. Chu, realized that she had a way to monitor its presence. She had been collecting nasal swabs from people in and around Seattle as part of a flu study, and proposed checking them for the new virus. State and federal officials rejected that idea, citing privacy concerns and throwing up bureaucratic obstacles related to lab licenses.
Finally, at the end of February, Chu could stand the intransigence no longer. Her lab performed some tests and found the coronavirus in a local teenager who had not traveled overseas. That meant the disease was already spreading in the Seattle region among people who had never been abroad. If Chu had found this information a month earlier, lives might have been saved and the spread of the disease might have slowed—but even after the urgency of her work became evident, her lab was told to stop testing.