By contrast, countries that have competent leaders who know how to marshal their resources more effectively may be starting to get the situation under control. In Germany, the number of new infections appears to be stagnating. For now, the death toll remains low.
A friend and former student of mine who moved to the United States from Germany for college summarized the stark difference between the two countries: “The vibes I get from family in Germany is that this sucks but it’s going to be okay,” Martin Eiermann told me. “People will come together; the state will soften the blow; the right people are making the right decisions. And that’s not the vibe I get here in America.”
It’s hard to disagree with him.
Making a home for yourself in a new country can be a lot like falling in love. At first, you are a little blind to the flaws of your beloved. A few months in, you start to notice them but insist, to yourself and to others, that they are charming quirks. After a few years, you have to admit that the object of your affection does have serious flaws, and that—even if you are as committed in your devotion as you ever were—ignoring reality won’t magically make them disappear.
Of course, I always knew that the United States was imperfect, and then some. I was well aware of the country’s glaring economic inequality, its deep racial injustices, and the cruel denial of health care to millions of people. As I often told friends, the United States is the best country in the world if you have the great good luck of being young, healthy, talented, and ambitious. For most of those who don’t fit that description, life in countries from Japan to Sweden can be a lot better.
But as it happens, I was one of the lucky few to whom this country did offer incredible opportunities. Much earlier than would have been possible in Germany, I got to meet incredible scholars, teach at wonderful universities, and write for major publications. And thanks to excellent health insurance, the care I got on the rare occasions when I did need to see a doctor was usually superior to what I had received in Germany.
And so, like so many other privileged residents of my adopted home, I never experienced America’s flaws in a visceral way. I knew about them. I lamented them. I fought to change them. But I did not feel them.
The past weeks have made this distance difficult to sustain. If the federal government continues to fail in its response, the number of coronavirus cases will breed death and dysfunction on a scale we still cannot imagine. And if I should then be unlucky enough to need care in the ICU, my expensive health insurance isn’t guaranteed to buy me access to a life-saving ventilator.
After a dozen or so years of living in my adopted home, I am, for the first time, experiencing what Germans poetically call heimweh, the hurt of being far from your native land. The usual things my fellow immigrants are wont to lament—from German bread to German trains—I am still willing to go without. But what wouldn’t I give, right now, to trade in our own set of clowns and criminals for Germany’s boring, humorless, and far more competent political leaders?