Read: We were warned
While U.S. policy makers do study other governments’ initiatives more than they necessarily advertise, American politicians typically resist engaging with ideas from abroad. Most U.S. public-policy debates, on matters including education reform and social mobility, occur in a bizarre vacuum, as if the encounters (good and bad) of the large majority of humankind with these same challenges yield no useful insights for the United States. On the rare occasions that politicians do invoke the policies of other governments, they often wield them as political props during highly polarized debates over issues such as health care and gun control.
And many American politicians, especially those on the right, have in recent years paradoxically doubled down on American exceptionalism (we have a president who ran on an “America first” platform, after all) even as American power has declined relative to other countries’.
This kind of insularity might have been “relatively harmless when America bestrode the world like a colossus, but it’s dangerous when the country faces a raft of global challenges from China, to climate, to COVID-19,” Dominic Tierney, a political-science professor at Swarthmore College (and a former contributing editor at The Atlantic), told me by email.
Pandemics are, in fact, particularly ripe moments for cross-cultural learning. Consider, for instance, the face mask. As Christos Lynteris, a medical anthropologist at the University of St Andrews relayed to me, face masks were invented during a 1910 outbreak of the pneumonic plague in Manchuria, by a Chinese doctor named Wu Liande, who was inspired by surgical masks he’d seen while studying in England. They caught on, in Wu’s telling, because of a fateful refusal to learn from others: Only after a French doctor who had declined to cover his face while treating patients died were the masks widely adopted.
Today, in the case of COVID-19, “all states face the same essential threat, and each government’s response is a kind of laboratory experiment,” Tierney said.
“The United States had the advantage of being struck relatively late by the virus, and this gave [us] a priceless chance to copy best practices and avoid the mistakes of others,” he noted.
Instead, the United States squandered that advantage on many fronts. The Obama administration had developed a playbook for pandemic response that drew in part on lessons from other countries’ experiences, but the Trump administration disregarded it. When China began confining millions of people to their homes in January, the U.S. government should have gotten the message that the Chinese were grappling with a grave threat to the wider world, the Yale sociologist and physician Nicholas Christakis told me in March. “We lost six weeks” in the United States to prepare—“to build ventilators, get protective equipment, organize our ICUs, get tests ready, prepare the public for what was going to happen so that our economy didn’t tank as badly. None of this was done adequately by our leaders.” By one estimate, from the epidemiologists Britta L. Jewell and Nicholas P. Jewell, if social-distancing policies had been implemented just two weeks earlier in March, 90 percent of the cumulative coronavirus deaths in the United States during the first wave of the pandemic might have been prevented.