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The Disunited States of America

The coronavirus pandemic is revealing the country’s deep-seated flaws—and could be its undoing.

There is cause for alarm. An epidemiological report from Imperial College London now guiding federal policy suggests as many as 2.2 million Americans could die if the authorities and public make little effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the United States. By isolating the infected and potentially infected and encouraging social distancing from the elderly, it is estimated that the toll can be halved to just over a million dead. The report goes on to suggest that the more intensive measures against the spread of the virus now belatedly underway in several states—widespread social distancing among the general public, the closure of schools and large establishments, bans on mass gatherings—can reduce casualties further, but only if the entire population participates in suppressive efforts until a vaccine is made widely available. This, the researchers noted, could take 18 months or more. Meanwhile, the sick will swamp the nation’s hospitals, which are wholly unprepared to meet the needs of the many thousands or even millions who might require sustained intensive treatment upon infection.

Even those the disease will leave untouched are already having their lives upended by an economic contagion that, as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin privately warned Republicans, would send the unemployment rate as high as 20 percent without serious mitigating action. The closure of bars, restaurants, and other nonessential businesses and the layoffs that have ensued are already producing spikes in unemployment claims without recent precedent. The losses will not be isolated to the travel industry and the most precarious sectors of the service economy. The range of potentially vulnerable businesses includes all firms that need people to physically gather.

And so we’ve seen this past week not only the closure of thousands of theaters nationwide but also the throttling of television and film production, which has already cost 120,000 entertainment crew jobs according to The Hollywood Reporter. The auto industry has been forced to contend with not just the potential shuttering of car dealerships but, after factory workers began to test positive for the virus, the closure of all General Motors and Fiat Chrysler plants in North America. Goldman Sachs has projected that American gross domestic product could decline by as much as 24 percent in the next quarter, an unfathomable number reflecting the impact of an extraordinary shock in both supply and demand. As long as large sectors of the economy remain shut down, people and firms will have both less money to spend and fewer goods and services on which to spend it.

This is the situation we now face—for all of our economic and technological advancement, for all the privileges of being the world’s lone superpower, for all of our might and all of our swagger, we have been rendered helpless by a disease that, despite the ravages that have faced China, Iran, and Italy, several other countries seem to have successfully contained. For what feels like the hundredth time in 20 years, we are set to be devastated and humiliated by a situation we ought to have seen coming and for which we ought to have been wholly prepared. But we are not. And people will die: needlessly, painfully, and in numbers no single, novel cause or event here has produced in generations. And so, there is cause for alarm.

We are a nation in quarantine. Whether we have been subjected to formal restrictions on movement and activity or not, America is now isolated, pent in, and getting reacquainted with itself. And while the faces we see in the mirror remain familiar, we are becoming, with each passing day, more unkempt and more undone than we would have thought possible.

It has been somehow both surprising and unsurprising to discover that while coronavirus tests have been inaccessible to the vast majority of the general public for weeks, murky back channels have made them available to—of course, of course!—a smattering of celebrities and professional athletes, including 58 members and associates of the Utah Jazz. It both has and has not been shocking to learn that certain investment bankers have privately urged health care firms to raise the prices of medical supplies and drugs for treating the virus’s symptoms, so as to maintain what one investor called, in a conversation with executives at a company that produces ventilators and masks, an “overall profit matrix.” It was astonishing, but not quite baffling, to hear that several Republican senators, including Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Kelly Loeffler, whose husband is chair of the New York Stock Exchange, sold millions in stock after a briefing on the pandemic that took place well before the Trump administration and Republicans had begun seriously communicating the severity of the looming crisis to the public.

Naturally, much of what Trump has been willing to say to the American people has been laden with disinformation: from the weeks of insistence that the virus had been contained and that the number of cases would go down to his characterization of concern about the administration’s handling of the virus as a hoax. But, no longer capable of minimizing the crisis, the president has recently turned to racializing it. And now that the phrase “Chinese virus” has, predictably, become a fixture of his statements, we’re being treated to an equally predictable set of excuses—that the phrase, for instance, is nothing more than an attempt to hold the Chinese regime rhetorically accountable, given its efforts to suggest America is responsible for the disease.

But when he was asked by a reporter to comment on Trump’s choice of words last week, Senator John Cornyn made reference not to the policies of the Chinese Communist Party but to “a culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs,” and went on to claim, falsely, that the MERS and swine flu outbreaks had also been caused by Chinese diets. The Asian Americans now being taunted and physically attacked on our streets as a consequence of this idea are not functionaries of Xi Jinping. And it wasn’t the Chinese government that was hurt when Americans began avoiding Chinese and East Asian establishments in the weeks before restaurant closures began.

It is entirely possible to criticize those in power in China without deploying language that only serves to deepen America’s current Sinophobia. But demagoguery is the only thing the president can do competently. Governing remains as beyond him now as it was the day he took office, and he has proven it with every public statement he’s made about the crisis: from his mistaken announcement that all travel and cargo shipments from Europe would be suspended; to one of his afternoon briefings on the pandemic, scheduled to juice turbulent markets just before close, when he announced, side by side with a menagerie of CEOs the federal government is now leaning on for help, the development of a coronavirus website by Google that now contains none of the features that were promised.

The president is now openly clashing with the governors who have been left pleading for information and resources. At a briefing this Thursday, for instance, he complained that the federal government is not a “shipping clerk” for medical supplies and that state officials should work to procure what they need on their own. In a videoconference that same day, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker gingerly informed him that his state had been having trouble doing so partially because the White House has repeatedly outbid its attempted purchases.

Although much of the blame for what is to come clearly lies with Trump, it should be said that the administration’s response has been entirely in keeping with a premise that has guided American public policy for decades now—that given the assumed unwieldiness and inefficiency of the federal government, the American people are better off putting their faith in the wisdom and innovation of the private sector and state and local officials. Consequently, Walgreens and Walmart will be guiding vital processes on the ground, and the states have become the petri dishes of our democracy.

America now faces an epochal public health emergency with an inadequate federal public health and research infrastructure—an infrastructure hobbled not only by the incompetence of this White House but by institutional decay and bureaucratic failures at the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a fact check of Democratic claims about the administration’s coronavirus response in February, for instance, the Associated Press reported ominously that public health experts have been troubled by a decline in CDC grants for state and local emergency preparedness brought about “by a congressional budget measure that predates Trump.” It all bodes poorly for the months ahead, as we move from testing to treatment.

Of course, our federal government continues to excel at showing muscle abroad. The German government is reportedly devising a strategy to prevent a German firm currently working on a coronavirus vaccine from being lured to the U.S. by the Trump administration, amid concerns that any such medical breakthrough would be made available exclusively to Americans. Economic sanctions on Iran—where over 21,000 people have been infected, over 1,600 have died, and authorities have begun digging mass graves visible in satellite imagery—have been not only maintained but deepened, with the administration imposing new penalties this past week on firms that have done business with Iran’s petrochemical and nuclear sectors. Despite the fact that the virus has spread much more slowly in Mexico and South and Central America than it has in the U.S., the administration has also redoubled its efforts to prohibit the entry of asylum-seekers; threatened to close our border with Mexico; and suspended visa processing for migrant laborers, putting grocery supply chains at risk. These were jaw-jutting moves—decisions made as if to prove to the world that for all the shortages we will face in the coming months, America still has plenty of brawn, bluster, and bullshit to go around.

But what we do not have is a country. We have a federation of states and localities offering a hodgepodge of solutions and nonsolutions to problems we’ve convinced ourselves the federal government cannot address. We have a constellation of corporations and banks that view our national emergencies as crises not of public health but of profit. We have a health care system that leaves millions unable to afford or access care even under normal conditions and that will now find itself short of the beds, equipment, and providers we need to treat the newly sick because it was short of the tests it needed to diagnose them. We have a thoroughly fragmented and individualized workforce dependent on meager social insurance policies and meager labor protections that are now being hurriedly and temporarily bolstered. And we have channels of information that have been deeply polluted by the braying of demagogues and television hacks, conflicting guidance from political leaders, and guerrilla misinformation distributed widely across new media channels—a cacophony of noise and nonsense that has convinced many Americans, in the absence of universally trusted authorities, to respond to this particular situation simply by doing what they personally see fit, which is often absolutely nothing. This is the infrastructure that has revealed itself. This is what we have. We have, and we are, fragments and pieces. We each have our own image, fixed in the mind’s eye, of what the whole ought to be. But we do not have the whole. We do not have a country.

We are beginning efforts to erect an edifice that might suffice for the time being. Our military is preparing mobile hospitals for deployment in regions likely to be overwhelmed by a deluge of the infected. In parking lots and vacant spaces, they will hopefully be treated. This is the nature of the response in miniature. We are all improvising, and we are all frantically pitching tents, hoping that a provisional, adequate, pop-up America might emerge to tide us over—one that we can pack up and put away once the crisis has passed. And feeling safe in the assumption nothing done now will last, the powers that be are allowing strange things to happen.

The state of New York is producing 100,000 gallons a week of its own branded hand sanitizer. According to Governor Andrew Cuomo, it smells of lilac, hydrangea, and tulips. It is being made by prison inmates who are prohibited from using it themselves and who will be similarly employed, should the need arise, to dig graves—perhaps their own—for the corpses New York City will be unable to store or cremate in a timely manner. More encouragingly, some inmates are actually being released, and some arrests have been suspended in New York City, the state of California, and in particular localities of other states including Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wisconsin to slow the virus’s spread. At the federal level, Trump and Mnuchin—after weeks of heightened rhetoric from the right on socialism—have been thinking out loud about the federal government taking part-ownership of the firms seeking bailouts in the coming months, just as it did during the last recession, raising the specter of not only partially nationalized airlines but also government stakes in tax-dodging cruise lines and casinos.

Some policy developments have been unreservedly good. Interest rates on federal student loans are being waived, and borrowers have been granted permission to suspend payments for two months. Evictions and foreclosures are being suspended for all federally backed properties and in certain cities and states. In California, money has turned up overnight to shelter tens of thousands of the homeless. The employees of groceries and supermarkets—who are both some of the lowest-paid workers in America and essential personnel in states that have suspended most businesses—are being given free childcare in Minnesota and Vermont. For crises like these, it turns out, we keep in strategic reserve not only masks and ventilators, but a supply of progressivism. And odd debates have broken out over how much of it to use.

The economist Kenneth Rogoff, perhaps best known for his data-challenged warnings about American debt spending during the Obama administration, said last week that the government would be justified in spending as much as $5 trillion on efforts to keep the economy afloat. And on Monday, Mitt Romney, who ran for the presidency in 2012 with a campaign that characterized the Obama administration’s stimulus spending as wasteful, proposed sending $1,000 to every adult—an idea that set off several days of chaotic debate over whether the Democratic Party had managed to find itself outflanked by the right on the question of unconditional cash assistance.

Now that the dust has settled and both Republican and Democratic proposals have been laid on the table, the dividing lines between the parties look more familiar. As always, there is support for means testing on both sides of the aisle. Republicans have additionally backed a stimulus plan that would give more to the middle class than the poor, while progressive Democrats like Bernie Sanders, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have been pushing their party to adopt a substantially more generous program, including monthly universal benefits.

The reality progressives already grasp and which others might be forced to contend with soon is that the virus does not separate people into the deserving and the undeserving or the productive and the unproductive. It passes from human being to human being. Our economy and society will remain paralyzed unless we prevent as many human beings from succumbing to it as possible. The education many Americans are getting in how interwoven we all are and the extraordinary unshackling of financial resources we’ve seen has fueled optimism on the left that the nation might leave all this ready to permanently transform our health care system and reshape our economy.

But this crisis will not produce positive and lasting change on its own. In the end, the left will have to contend with the same deep longing for normalcy that has defined the Trump era. The mere impression of authority and command has already started to lift approval of Trump’s handling of the crisis as he’s made more appearances with his coronavirus task force. Joe Biden, who has all but disappeared from the political scene since his victories last Tuesday, has been placed, by the patina of his former position, well ahead of Sanders on the question of who would better manage the crisis, despite the boldness of Sanders’s proposals to address it. All this suggests that we may well return to inertia unless we actively remind the American people in the aftermath of how possible the impossible becameand how quickly money and government power materializedwhen the crisis struck.

The aftermath is a long way away. What will we all do now? It is often said inspirationally that, for all of our seemingly intractable divisions, Americans come together in times of crisis. This is false. There is always some group—those of a particular race, or religion, or sexual orientation; those without papers, or money, or property—consigned to the margins of public concern, forced to contend with both our putatively collective crises and their own specific crises alone. But consider how bleak the idea would be even if it held true: one nation, inherently divided, stitched together only by trauma. Even in our reassuring notions, we are something that should not really be, something perpetually on the verge of falling apart.

We should be, then, ready for the possibility that this crisis will be a great falling apart—a grand failure not only of institutions and infrastructure but of conscience and spirit as the nonchalance of millions inevitably gives way, in belated panic, to grotesque, hysterical entitlement. Our situation will be made dangerous not only by the virus and its economic consequences but by fear: a kind of existential, pervasive terror many have tried to revive since the threat of nuclear annihilation dissipated with the end of the Cold War. It will be justified. But if we are going to be afraid, we should be afraid for the right reasons. If we are going to be angry, we should be angry at the right people about the right things.

This is where to start: As a consequence of an electoral system designed to maximize the political influence of some Americans at the expense of others, we are being led through a catastrophic global pandemic by a man—a criminal, in fact—who had no background whatsoever in public policy prior to taking office, who has already botched the federal response to the crisis, and who has misled the American people about the nature and severity of the disease. Members of the president’s party in Congress knew the situation we now face would be more serious than he let on but did not speak out or condemn him and seem no likelier now to support removing him from office than they did during his impeachment trial in January.

It is neither hyperbole nor an act of partisan exaggeration to say that people will die and livelihoods will be destroyed as a consequence of what the president has done and what he has failed to do. Members of the Democratic Party should be calling for his resignation and uniformly demanding an aggressive set of measures to protect all workers and shore up the economy. Congenitally incapable of rising to this or any moment, they are not. That is the American political situation. That is the depth of the hole we are in. There is cause for alarm.