The US is failing the test of the century

Like an asteroid, coronavirus is the textbook example of an exogenous shock. The threat came from beyond. Yet the pathogen offers a unique stress test of each country’s resilience. Some nation states are holding up well. In spite of its unmatched scientific resources, the US is not. More worrying, it is showing little sign of lifting its performance. Six weeks after its first coronavirus death, America’s learning curve remains flatter than its infection rate. It should be the other way round. 

The biggest worry is that the US still lacks a road map. The federal government has only a weak grasp on how many Americans are infected with Covid-19, a clear measure of the mortality rate, and therefore the extent of immunity in the country. Without more tests, the US is travelling blind. Just 1 per cent of the country, 3.2m people, have been tested so far. In early March, Mike Pence, the vice-president, promised 4m tests within a week. The same day, President Donald Trump said anybody in the US who wanted a test could get one. That remains as untrue today as it was then. 

The stubborn fact is that the US is not churning out enough kits. The average number of daily tests has been stuck at 140,000 for the past two weeks. That is far below the level that scientists say is required to gauge the pandemic’s reach. Some say the US should be testing 10 times that number to understand the spread of the disease. Others want half-a-million a day. Either way, testing has hit a very low plateau, which is a metric of negligence. Without a grasp of the facts, the US will not find its way out. 

The deepest puzzle is the gap between wishes and action. Mr Trump was not alone in waking up very late to the coronavirus threat. Others, including Britain’s Boris Johnson, were equally laggard. Each country now has higher death rates than they would have had they acted sooner. Epidemiologists say that if the US shutdown had taken place two weeks earl, 90 per cent of the deaths would have been prevented. More than 30,000 Americans have now died, according to the official tally. Had no social distancing occurred at all, the US would have lost many times that by now. There is no excuse for running the same experiment again. 

Healthcare workers at the ProHEALTH Care coronavirus testing site on Wednesday in New Hyde Park, New York 
Only 3.2m Americans, just 1 per cent of the country, have been tested so far for Covid-19 © Bruce Bennett/Getty 

Yet that is what Mr Trump is pushing to do. On Thursday he will publish guidelines for the reopening of the US economy from May 1 — less than two weeks away. The worst-hit states on each coast will probably stick to their timetables. US politics abhors a federal vacuum. States are clubbing together to fill it. But they will be subjected to increasingly urgent pressure to follow Mr Trump’s dictates, which are driven by politics, rather than science. It was one thing to wake up late to the virus. It would be quite another to drift back into sleep too soon. 

There is no point in fantasising which US presidents would have done better. The answer is almost any. You go to war with the president you have. But it is easy to project Mr Trump’s direction. There will be no federal plan to marshal the US’s resources for testing, therapeutics or the search for a vaccine. The US will have to rely on its patchwork of labs, companies and philanthropists. They are unrivalled but highly fragmented. As the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, put it: states should not have to compete with each other during a war for tanks and guns. 

Nor will Mr Trump educate Americans about the reality ahead. In his view, the US is already past the peak. Failure to reopen the economy would cost more lives than keeping it closed, he says. In fact, a new wave that triggered a second lockdown would be a far bigger hit to US wealth than a cautious return to work over a period of months. One paper estimates the difference at $5.2tn over 30 years. Economists and scientists mostly agree on this. Mr Trump is deaf to the consensus. 

Which means the US is likely to flunk the test that matters most — national purpose. No matter how sinuous their civic institutions, nations without leadership lose wars. The US was galvanised into unity after the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor and the launch of Sputnik. Covid-19, by contrast, is spurring a hunt for scapegoats. The virus is only worsening America’s divide.

Editor’s note

The Financial Times is making key coronavirus coverage free to read to help everyone stay informed. Find the latest here.

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