President Donald Trump has characterized the coronavirus crisis as “a time of shared national sacrifice,” but here’s the hard truth: The nation has never in living memory had to collectively sacrifice quite like this.
Geography has bestowed upon the United States the blessing of being surrounded, as a former NATO chief once put it to me, by friends and fish: Canada, Mexico, and two oceans. Even when the homeland has come under attack—at Pearl Harbor, on 9/11—we responded by fighting the enemy over there so we would not have to fight it back here. When it comes to national-security threats, here has long been a refuge, a fortress. Hence, perhaps, the impulse in the U.S., when the coronavirus began spreading, to prioritize keeping the threat there (via travel restrictions) over preparing for when it got here (by bolstering the health-care system to withstand a surge of cases).
Now, for the first time in generations, the homefront has become the battleground, in this case for the fight against an invisible foe undaunted by borders and oceans and America’s traditional defenses.
Suddenly America, now home to one of the world’s worst outbreaks of the virus, has discovered that it isn’t really wired for the all-of-society struggle that’s needed to fight the coronavirus. We do have many obvious strengths in this fight—we’re a wealthy nation, a hub for technological and scientific innovation, a democratic society with free-flowing information, and a leader in handling global-health crises. But the outbreak has also exposed weaknesses that put the country at a disadvantage from the start, particularly relative to other rich democracies that are confronting the same disease but have managed, if only partially so far, to flatten their curve. In the United States, the virus has struck a highly polarized, fragmented, and individualistic society, one not haunted and transformed by a previous epidemic the way other societies have been. These factors, along with the Trump administration’s failures to take the threat of the virus seriously when it first emerged, placed the United States squarely on the back foot in its battle against COVID-19.