A second wave of the coronavirus is on the way. When it arrives, we will lack the will to deal with it. Despite all the sacrifices of the past months, the virus is likely to win—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it already has.
In absolute terms, the United States has been hit harder than any other country. About a quarter of worldwide deaths have been recorded on these shores. And while the virus is no longer growing at an exponential rate, the threat it poses remains significant: According to a forecasting model by Morgan Stanley, the number of American cases will, if current trends hold, roughly double over the next two months.
But neither the impact of mass protests over police brutality nor the effect of the recent reopening of much of the country—including the casinos in Las Vegas—is reflected in the latest numbers. It can take at least 10 days for people to develop symptoms and seek out a test, and for the results to be aggregated and disseminated by public-health authorities.
Even so, the disease is slowly starting to recede from the public’s attention. After months of dominating media coverage, COVID-19 has largely disappeared from the front pages of most national newspapers. In recent polls, the number of people who favor “reopening the economy as soon as possible” over “staying home as long as necessary” has increased. And so it is perhaps no surprise that even states where the number of new infections stands at an all-time high are pressing ahead with plans to lift many restrictions on businesses and mass gatherings.
When the first wave of COVID-19 was threatening to overwhelm the medical system, back in March, the public’s fear and uncertainty were far more intense than they are now. So was the reason to hope that some magic bullet might rescue us from the worst ravages of the disease.
At this point, such hopes look unrealistic. After months of intense research, an effective treatment for COVID-19 still does not exist. A vaccine is, even if we get lucky, many months away from deployment. Because the virus is spreading especially rapidly in parts of the Southern Hemisphere, from Latin America to Africa, heat is clearly no impediment to its dissemination.
Perhaps most important, it is now difficult to imagine that anybody could muster the political will to impose a full-scale lockdown for a second time. As one poll in Pennsylvania found, nearly nine out of 10 Republicans trusted “the information you hear about coronavirus from medical experts” back in April. Now just about one in three does. With public opinion more polarized than it was a few months ago, and the presidential election looming, any attempt to deal with a resurgence of the virus is likely to be even more haphazard, contentious, and ineffective than it was the first time around.
In the fullness of time, many books will be written about why a country as rich, powerful, and scientifically advanced as the United States failed quite so badly at coping with a public-health emergency that experts had predicted for many years. As is always the case, competing explanations will quickly emerge. Some will focus on the incompetence of the Trump administration, while others will draw attention to the country’s loss of state capacity; some will argue that the United States is an outlier, while others will put its failure in the context of other countries, such as Brazil and Russia, that are also faring poorly.
I do not intend to offer a first draft of history. We are too close to the events to judge, with a cool head, which factors are most responsible for putting us in our current tragic situation. But I would like to offer a partial list of individuals and institutions who, however central or peripheral their contribution to the ultimate outcome, have helped to get us into this mess:
If the virus wins, it is because the World Health Organization downplayed the threat for far too long.
If the virus wins, it is because Donald Trump was more interested in hushing up bad news that might hurt the economy than in saving American lives.
If the virus wins, it is because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, created to deal with just this kind of emergency, has proved to be too bureaucratic and incompetent to do its job.
If the virus wins, it is because the White House did not even attempt to put a test-and-trace regime into place at the federal level.
Although we do not yet know the effect of more recent events on the course of the pandemic, or what exactly will happen in the coming weeks and months, the list of culprits will likely be even longer than that.
If the virus wins, it may also be because Derek Chauvin kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds as Floyd was pleading for his life, setting off protests that—as righteous as they are—could well result in mass infections.
If the virus wins, it may also be because 1,200 public-health experts obfuscated the mortal risk that these mass protests would pose to the most vulnerable among us by declaring not only (as would be reasonable) that they supported them as citizens, but also (which is highly implausible) that they had determined, as scientists, that they would actively serve “the national public health.”
If the virus wins, it may also be because so many states moved to reopen before getting the pace of infections under control.
If the virus wins, it may also be because the right-wing-media echo chamber is starting to downplay the risk that a second wave poses to Americans.
If the virus does win, then, it is because American elites, experts, and institutions have fallen short—and continue to fall short—of the grave responsibility with which they are entrusted in ways too innumerable to list.
About a month ago, I started to write a very different article. “Is it possible,” I wondered, “that with the benefit of hindsight, this cruel period will seem rather more heroic than is obvious to its contemporaries? One thing is clear: If we had let the virus rip through the population unchecked, the consequences would have been unspeakable. But if—a big if—we manage to contain the pandemic, and avert millions of deaths, it would constitute one of the greatest achievements in human history.”
Hoping to publish the article in The Atlantic, I kept waiting for the situation in the United States to recover sufficiently to justify my guarded optimism. But that moment never arrived. Now it feels more remote than ever.
We were on the brink of doing something incredible. And much of the credit for that would have gone to the many ordinary citizens who lived up to their moral responsibility in an extraordinary moment.
Scientists have desperately searched for a vaccine. Despite the real risks to their health, doctors, nurses, cooks, cleaners, and clerical staff have reported for duty in their hospitals. Suddenly declared “essential,” workers who have long enjoyed little respect and low wages helped to keep society afloat.
For the rest of us, the order of the day was simply to stay at home and slow the spread. It was a modest task, which made it all the more galling that some people fell short. But this nitpick obscures how many people did do what they could to get us all through the crisis: They checked in with their relatives and cooked for the elderly. They took to their balconies to thank health-care workers or sang songs to cheer up the neighbors. By and large, they stayed at home and slowed the spread.
Thanks to the effort of millions of people, we were close to a great success story. But because of the failures of Trump and Chauvin, of the CDC and the WHO, of public-health experts and Fox News hosts, we are, instead, likely to give up—and tolerate that hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens will die needless deaths.
Pandemics reveal the true state of a society. Ours has come up badly wanting.