The myth of America’s unique COVID-19 failure
If you follow the news these days, you are likely inundated with stories about how the United States, under Donald Trump, has uniquely mishandled the COVID-19 outbreak. Much of the rest of the world, we are assured, has managed the pandemic surprisingly well. But the United States? An unparalleled “catastrophe,” says the Atlantic. “A unique failure,” intones the New York Times.
But what if these judgments are wrong? What if they are so focused on absolute numbers of cases and deaths, that they miss the most important apples-to-apples nuances necessary to make a proper assessment?
It appears this is exactly what has happened with the reporting on America’s COVID-19 response. In fact, when you compare the United States with other countries with similar political and economic systems (the fairest comparison), the United States is more middle-of-the-pack than unrivaled outlier.
Surprised? So were we.
Like many Americans, we found the Trump administration’s initial response to the novel coronavirus to be lackluster, dismissive, and (typical of Trump) politically overwrought. And while there were significant successes, like enacting massive economic stimulus packages with Congress, and an impressive ramp-up in ventilator production, the dire numbers were hard to miss: COVID-19 deaths in the United States have consistently accounted for more than 20 percent of all COVID-related deaths worldwide. Unique disaster, right?
If you dig a little deeper into the top-line numbers, you’ll find two important mitigating factors at play. First, the United States, with a population of 330 million, was always going to have a higher absolute death count compared with nearly every other country in the world. Hearing that the United States had 1,000 deaths on a given day while Costa Rica had only 15 might make for good copy at CNN — but those numbers are about equal, in relative terms, because Costa Rica has a population of only 5 million.
Second, and more important, the list of countries most negatively impacted by the pandemic, as measured by per-capita deaths per 100,000, is dominated by Western capitalist democracies: seven of the top 10 (and nine of the top 14 — not counting the microstates of San Marino and Andorra) are liberal democracies ranging from Belgium to the Netherlands. The United States, at number 8, is roughly equal to France, and significantly below Belgium, Britain, Italy, Spain, and Sweden.
Yes, some of these countries had terrible early outbreaks that have skewed their overall mortality numbers. But so did the United States — the hard-hit Northeast still accounts for roughly half of all U.S. COVID-19 deaths. And while several countries like Spain, Britain, and the United States (and Australia) are suffering second wave infections, mortality rates have dropped significantly, none more so than in the United States.
In other words, the media-driven narrative that Trump’s America is suffering through a unique COVID-19 failure is wildly misleading. It would be far more accurate to say that American-style liberal democracy has, on balance, faced a much tougher time containing and controlling the worst effects of the virus on its societies.
This should actually not come as much of a surprise when considering that liberal democracies embody greater openness and exposure to international trade and travel than most other countries. They also contain private-sector-based free market economies that are not genetically suited to government-directed “shutdowns” or “lockdowns”; indeed, their natural instinct — none more so than the United States — is to be open and flowing.
So, while media talking heads like to point out that the United States is faring worse than “nearly all other countries” in its handling of the Coronavirus, this is actually an irrelevant point. Does anyone believe that Rwanda, Uganda, and Sri Lanka — the countries least impacted by the virus — should be models for running advanced industrial economies? Of course not. And while some democracies — like Germany and Denmark — have done a better job than others with their response, even they can’t escape being in the top 40 hardest hit countries.
Instead of being caught up with irrelevant global numbers, the United States and other liberal democracies must navigate recovery on their own terms. Indeed, we believe the same capitalist democracies that are having a relatively tougher time managing the Coronavirus will have relatively greater success moving past it. That’s because the same social and economic openness that creates Coronavirus vulnerabilities will also provide the ingenuity and resourcefulness to effectively balance public health and economic vitality, and a return to full strength.
Stuart Gottlieb teaches international affairs and public policy at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. He formerly served as a foreign policy adviser and speechwriter in the United States Senate (1999-2003). Bre’Anna Sonnier-Thompson is a political analyst in Louisiana.
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