“Anatomy of an American Failure”

In The Atlantic’s September issue, Ed Yong reports on how the most powerful country in the world failed its citizens.

As the fall approaches, and countries around the world prepare to resume their pre-pandemic lives, the planet’s most powerful nation stands alone. The United States has been humbled and humiliated by its failure to protect its people and contain the coronavirus. How did it come to this?

For The Atlantic’s September cover, staff writer Ed Yong undertakes an autopsy of this catastrophic failure. His is a full accounting of what went wrong, every weakness and every failure, leading to the painful conclusion that “almost everything that went wrong with America’s response to the pandemic was predictable and preventable.” Yong’s reporting urges us to grapple with the multitude of preexisting vulnerabilities that have accumulated in the U.S. for years, for decades. Unless we fix that broken foundation, the country will be at the mercy of even worse plagues to come.

Yong’s report, “Anatomy of An American Failure,” is out today. He shares the cover with Ibram X. Kendi, a contributing writer at The Atlantic and one of the country’s foremost anti-racist voices. Kendi’s cover story, “The End of Denial,” will be published Wednesday, August 5.

In his reporting, Yong details how each of our country’s actions, and inactions—from chronic underfunding of public-health programs, to racist policies that left Indigenous and Black Americans especially vulnerable to COVID-19—contributed to a response that has left more than 150,000 Americans dead. He argues that the U.S. has little excuse for its inattention, as epidemics of SARS, MERS, Ebola, H1N1 flu, and Zika showed in recent decades the havoc that new and reemergent pathogens could wreak. But, he writes, “the COVID-19 debacle has also touched—and implicated—nearly every other facet of American society: its shortsighted leadership, its disregard for expertise, its racial inequities, its social-media culture, and its fealty to a dangerous strain of individualism.”

Unsparing in his criticism of the administration’s response, Yong calls President Trump’s failure in leadership entirely unsurprising. “No one should be shocked that a liar who has made almost 20,000 false or misleading claims during his presidency would lie about whether the U.S. had the pandemic under control; that a racist who gave birth to birtherism would do little to stop a virus that was disproportionately killing Black people; that a xenophobe who presided over the creation of new immigrant-detention centers would order meatpacking plants with a substantial immigrant workforce to remain open; that a cruel man devoid of empathy would fail to calm fearful citizens; that a narcissist who cannot stand to be upstaged would refuse to tap the deep well of experts at his disposal … or that a president who has been shielded by his party from any shred of accountability would say, when asked about the lack of testing, ‘I don’t take any responsibility at all.’”

Yong warns that COVID-19 is merely a harbinger of worse plagues to come, and the U.S. cannot prepare for these inevitable crises if it returns to normal. Instead, “it should strive to prevent sickness instead of profiting from it. It should build a health-care system that prizes resilience over brittle efficiency, and an information system that favors light over heat. It should rebuild its international alliances, its social safety net, and its trust in empiricism. It should address the health inequities that flow from its history. Not least, it should elect leaders with sound judgment, high character, and respect for science, logic, and reason.”

Read “Anatomy of An American Failure” at The Atlantic. The September issue of the magazine will continue to publish at The Atlantic across the coming weeks.