For the First Time, I’m Doubting My Decision to Come to America

The coronavirus is making me experience what Germans poetically call heimweh, the hurt of being far from your native land.

Angela Merkel
Michael Kappeler / AP

In times of upheaval or natural catastrophe, the State Department often advises Americans to avoid some of the world’s poorest nations. When ISIS took over large parts of Syria and Mali descended into civil war, the federal government implored Americans not to go to those countries. One of the pieces of advice it offers to those who insist on visiting them anyway is rather blunt: “Draft a will.”

These warnings speak to a set of assumptions so obvious, they seem almost silly to spell out. America is a rich and stable country. So long as U.S. citizens stay home—or restrict their travel to other developed nations—they are likely to remain safe. Travel warnings tend to flow from north to south, rich to poor, democracy to dictatorship.

This makes it all the more striking that, for the first time in living memory, the German embassy has now asked citizens who are currently in the United States to return home as quickly as possible. Rather than trusting the most powerful nation on Earth to protect its residents against the coronavirus pandemic, Germany has apparently decided that its citizens are not safe here.

That tells you a lot about just how badly America is handling the pandemic. For those like me, who were born and raised in Germany but have chosen to make a home for ourselves here in the United States, it also raises a set of rather more personal questions.

Is this country, despite its might, less able to protect its citizens than other developed democracies? Or, to put it even more bluntly: Did immigrants like me make a terrible mistake when we decided to come here?

If you had asked political scientists to predict which countries would be especially well prepared for an unprecedented threat to the lives of millions of people like the one we are living through now, they would likely have pointed to a simple factor: state capacity. The richer a country is, the more developed its institutions, and the larger the workforce on which it can call in a crisis, the better it is likely to perform.

If you had asked public-health experts, they would likely have gotten a lot more specific. The quality of a country’s response, they would have pointed out, depends on such factors as the number of doctors and ICU beds in the country, the existence of scientific labs that can carry out the crucial work of detecting and testing for a new disease, and the public-health infrastructure that can coordinate the response.

From both a political-science and public-health standpoint, the United States seemed well prepared. In one recent attempt to measure the capacity of different nations around the world, for example, the United States was bested by many Scandinavian countries but still beat such countries as France and Japan. And when the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health released the Global Health Security Index last year, the United States actually came out on top.

But the pandemic reveals that, when it comes to an actual crisis, the United States seems to be a paper tiger—one that is adamant on picking a big fight with the nearest shredder.

What good is all that state capacity when the president dismisses an extraordinary threat to public health as a “hoax” for crucial weeks? And what good are all those tools to fight a pandemic when the federal government threatens to withhold those resources from states whose governors don’t sufficiently flatter the president’s ego? It will take months or years until we can begin to estimate just how many lives America lost because of the shame and misfortune of having elected Donald Trump to the White House.

But for all the needless suffering Trump is causing, the full list of people who share the blame is long and varied. It includes both the president of Liberty University, who insists on reopening his campus, and the mayor of New York, who has only managed to unite his city in disdain for his incompetence. And it includes both the newscasters who confidently assured their audiences that the coronavirus could not possibly turn into a deadly pandemic and the leaders of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who insisted on developing their own, faulty test for COVID-19.

As a result, the United States now has more patients who are suffering from this disease than any other country in the whole world. Even now, the number of its cases is increasing at a faster rate than in virtually every other country.

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?

Germany’s Angela Merkel is not a woman of many words or great speeches. In past crises, she has been reluctant to make personal appeals to the nation. But in this extraordinary moment, she held a moving address that rallied the country to the common cause.

Referencing the many decades she spent as a subject of the East German Communist dictatorship, she acknowledged that “for someone like me, who had to fight hard to win the freedom of movement,” the current restrictions on the daily lives of German citizens “cannot be agreed to with levity—and they must never become permanent. But right now, they are unavoidable to save the lives of many.”

Meanwhile, the only things emanating from the White House are rancor, venality, narcissism, partisanship, and cheap propaganda. At one of the most important moments in American history, Trump has, as David Frum recently put it, been the president of the Red States of America. And now, cheered on by Fox News, he is considering endangering an untold number of Americans by prematurely reopening the country for business.

And yet, for all its abject failures, my adopted country can still draw on its great strengths to turn things around.

The first vaccine trials in the world are under way in California.

The skilled professionals at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are converting hotels and conference centers into makeshift hospitals.

Large companies are repurposing their factories to produce protective equipment and desperately needed ventilators.

The thousands of people who cheer on health-care workers out their windows show that we can rise to this challenge with a spirit of compassion and solidarity.

I do not regret making my home in the United States. And I hope that no one gives up on America at this crucial time. But it is up to all of us, collectively, to make sure that America lives up to our love.