As the U.S. heads toward the winter, the country is going round in circles, making the same conceptual errors that have plagued it since spring.
Army ants will sometimes walk in circles until they die. The workers navigate by smelling the pheromone trails of workers in front of them, while laying down pheromones for others to follow. If these trails accidentally loop back on themselves, the ants are trapped. They become a thick, swirling vortex of bodies that resembles a hurricane as viewed from space. They march endlessly until they’re felled by exhaustion or dehydration. The ants can sense no picture bigger than what’s immediately ahead. They have no coordinating force to guide them to safety. They are imprisoned by a wall of their own instincts. This phenomenon is called the death spiral. I can think of no better metaphor for the United States of America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The U.S. enters the ninth month of the pandemic with more than 6.3 million confirmed cases and more than 189,000 confirmed deaths. The toll has been enormous because the country presented the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus with a smorgasbord of vulnerabilities to exploit. But the toll continues to be enormous—every day, the case count rises by around 40,000 and the death toll by around 800—because the country has consistently thought about the pandemic in the same unproductive ways.
Many Americans trusted intuition to help guide them through this disaster. They grabbed onto whatever solution was most prominent in the moment, and bounced from one (often false) hope to the next. They saw the actions that individual people were taking, and blamed and shamed their neighbors. They lapsed into magical thinking, and believed that the world would return to normal within months. Following these impulses was simpler than navigating a web of solutions, staring down broken systems, and accepting that the pandemic would rage for at least a year.
These conceptual errors were not egregious lies or conspiracy theories, but they were still dangerous. They manifested again and again, distorting the debate around whether to stay at home, wear masks, or open colleges. They prevented citizens from grasping the scope of the crisis and pushed leaders toward bad policies. And instead of overriding misleading intuitions with calm and considered communication, those leaders intensified them. The country is now trapped in an intuition nightmare: Like the spiraling ants, Americans are walled in by their own unhelpful instincts, which lead them round and round in self-destructive circles.
“The grand challenge now is, how can we adjust our thinking to match the problem before us?” says Lori Peek, a sociologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies disasters. Here, then, are nine errors of intuition that still hamstring the U.S. pandemic response, and a glimpse at the future if they continue unchecked. The time to break free is now. Our pandemic summer is nearly over. Now come fall, the season of preparation, and winter, the season of survival. The U.S. must reset its mindset to accomplish both. Ant death spirals break only when enough workers accidentally blunder away, creating trails that lead the spiraling workers to safety. But humans don’t have to rely on luck; unlike ants, we have a capacity for introspection.
The spiral begins when people forget that controlling the pandemic means doing many things at once. The virus can spread before symptoms appear, and does so most easily through five P’s: people in prolonged, poorly ventilated, protection-free proximity. To stop that spread, this country could use measures that other nations did, to great effect: close nonessential businesses and spaces that allow crowds to congregate indoors; improve ventilation; encourage mask use; test widely to identify contagious people; trace their contacts; help them isolate themselves; and provide a social safety net so that people can protect others without sacrificing their livelihood. None of these other nations did everything, but all did enough things right—and did them simultaneously. By contrast, the U.S. engaged in …
Stay-at-home orders dominated March. Masks were fiercely debated in April. Contact tracing took its turn in May. Ventilation is having its moment now. “It’s like we only have attention for only one thing at a time,” says Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida.
As often happens, people sought easy technological fixes for complex societal problems. For months, President Donald Trump touted hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 cure, even as rigorous studies showed that it isn’t one. In August, he switched his attention to convalescent plasma—the liquid fraction of a COVID-19 survivor’s blood that might contain virus-blocking antibodies. There’s still no clear evidence that this century-old approach can treat COVID-19 either, despite grossly misstated claims from FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn (for which he later apologized). More generally, drugs might save some of the very sickest patients, as dexamethasone does, or shorten a hospital stay, as remdesivir does, but they are unlikely to offer outright cures. “It’s so reassuring to think that a magic-bullet treatment is out there and if we just wait, it’ll come and things will be normal,” Dean says.
Other strategies have merit, but are wrongly dismissed for being imperfect. In July, Carl Bergstrom, an epidemiologist and a sociologist of science at the University of Washington, argued that colleges cannot reopen safely without testing all students upon entry. “The gotcha question I’ve handled most from reporters since is: This school did entry testing, so why did they get an outbreak?” he says. It’s because such testing is necessary for a safe reopening, but not sufficient. “If you do it and screw everything else up, you’ll still have a big outbreak,” Bergstrom adds.
This brief attention span is understandable. Adherents of the scientific method are trained to isolate and change one variable at a time. Academics are walled off into different disciplines that rarely connect. Journalists constantly look for new stories, shifting attention to the next great idea. These factors prime the public to view solutions in isolation, which means imperfections become conflated with uselessness. For example, many critics of masks argued that they provide only partial protection against the virus, that they often don’t fit well, or that people wear them incorrectly. But some protection is clearly better than no protection. As Dylan Morris of Princeton writes, “X won’t stop COVID on its own is not an argument against doing X.” Instead, it’s an argument for doing X along with other measures. Seat belts won’t prevent all fatal car crashes, but cars also come with airbags and crumple zones. “When we layer things, we give ourselves more wiggle room,” Dean says.
Several experts I’ve talked with have been asked: What now? The question assumes that the pandemic lingers because the U.S. simply hasn’t found the right solution yet. In fact, it lingers because the familiar solutions were never fully implemented. Despite claims from the White House, the U.S. is still not testing enough people. It still doesn’t have enough contact tracers. “We have the playbook, but I think there’s a confusion about what we’ve actually tried and what we’ve just talked about doing,” Dean says. A successful response “is never going to be one thing done perfectly. It’ll be a lot of different things done well enough.” That resilience disappears if we create…
A world of black and white is easier to handle than one awash with grays. But false dichotomies are dangerous. From the start, COVID-19 has been portrayed as a disease that mostly causes mild symptoms in people who quickly recover, and occasionally causes severe illness that leads to hospitalization and death. This two-sided caricature—severe or mild, sick or recovered—has erased the thousands of “long-haulers” who have endured months of debilitating symptoms at home with neither recognition nor care.
Meanwhile, as businesses closed and stay-at-home orders rolled out, “we presumed a trade-off between saving lives and saving the economy,” says Danielle Allen, a political scientist at Harvard. “That was foolishness of the most profound degree.” The two goals were actually aligned: Epidemiologists and economists largely agree that the economy cannot rebound while the pandemic is still raging. By treating the two as opposites, state leaders rushed to reopen, leading a barely contained virus to surge anew.
Now, as winter looms and the pandemic continues, another dichotomy has emerged: enter another awful lockdown, or let the virus run free. This choice, too, is false. Public-health measures offer a middle road, and even “lockdowns” need not be as overbearing as they were in spring. A city could close higher-risk venues like bars and nightclubs while opening lower-risk ones like retail stores. There’s a “whole control panel of dials” on offer, but “it’s hard to have that conversation when people think of a light switch,” says Lindsay Wiley, a professor of public-health law at American University. “The term lockdown has done a lot of damage.” It exacerbated the false binary between shutting down and opening up, while offering …
Stay-at-home orders saved lives by curtailing COVID-19’s spread, and by giving hospitals some breathing room. But the orders were also meant to buy time for the nation to ramp up its public-health defenses. Instead, the White House treated months of physical distancing as a pandemic-ending strategy in itself. “We squandered that time in terms of scaling up testing and contact tracing, enacting policies to protect workers who get infected on the job, getting protective equipment to people in food-processing plants, finding places for people to isolate, offering paid sick leave … We still don’t have those things,” says Julia Marcus, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School and regular Atlantic contributor. The country is now facing the fall with many of the same problems that plagued it through the summer.
Showiness is often mistaken for effectiveness. The coronavirus mostly spreads through air rather than contaminated surfaces, but many businesses are nonetheless trying to scrub and bleach their way toward reopening. My colleague Derek Thompson calls this hygiene theater—dramatic moves that appear to offer safety without actually doing so. The same charge applies to temperature checks, which can’t detect the many COVID-19 patients who don’t have a fever. It also applies to the porous and inefficient travel bans that Trump and his allies still tout as policy successes. These tactics might do some good—let’s not conflate imperfect with useless—but they cause harm when they substitute for stronger measures. Theatricality breeds complacency. And by emphasizing solutions that can be easily seen, it exacerbated the American preference for …
SARS-CoV-2 spread rapidly among America’s overstuffed prisons and understaffed nursing homes, in communities served by overstretched hospitals and underfunded public-health departments, and among Black, Latino, and Indigenous Americans who had been geographically and financially disconnected from health care by decades of racist policies. Without paid sick leave or a living wage, “essential workers” who earn a low, hourly income could not afford to quarantine themselves when they fell ill—and especially not if that would jeopardize the jobs to which their health care is tied. “The things I do to stay safe, they don’t have that as an option,” says Whitney Robinson, a social epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
But tattered social safety nets are less visible than crowded bars. Pushing for universal health care is harder than shaming an unmasked stranger. Fixing systemic problems is more difficult than spewing moralism, and Americans gravitated toward the latter. News outlets illustrated pandemic articles with (often distorted) photos of beaches, even though open-air spaces offer low-risk ways for people to enjoy themselves. Marcus attributes this tendency to America’s puritanical roots, which conflate pleasure with irresponsibility, and which prize shame over support. “The shaming gets codified into bad policy,” she says. Chicago fenced off a beach, and Honolulu closed beaches, parks, and hiking trails, while leaving riskier indoor businesses open.
Moralistic thinking jeopardizes health in two ways. First, people often oppose measures that reduce an individual’s risk—seat belts, condoms, HPV vaccines—because such protections might promote risky behavior. During the pandemic, some experts used such reasoning to question the value of masks, while the University of Michigan’s president argued that testing students widely would offer a “false sense of security.” These paternalistic false-assurance arguments are almost always false themselves. “There’s very little evidence for overcompensation to the point where safety measures do harm,” Bergstrom says.
Second, misplaced moralism can provide cover for bad policies. Many colleges started their semester with in-person teaching and inadequate testing, and are predictably dealing with large outbreaks. UNC Chapel Hill lasted just six days before reverting to remote classes. Administrators have chastised students for behaving irresponsibly, while taking no responsibility for setting them up to fail—a pattern that will likely continue through the fall as college clusters inevitably grow. “If you put 10,000 [students] in a small space, eating, sleeping, and socializing together, there’ll be an explosion of cases,” Robinson says. “I don’t know what [colleges] were expecting.” Perhaps they fell prey to …
In times of uncertainty and upheaval, “people crave a return to familiar, predictable rhythms,” says Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. That pull is especially strong now because the pandemic’s toll is largely invisible. There’s nothing as dramatic as ruined buildings or lapping floodwater to hint that the world has changed. In some circles, returning to normal has been valorized as an act of defiance. That’s a reasonable stance when resisting terrorists, who seek to stoke fear, but a dangerous one when fighting a virus, which doesn’t care.
The powerful desire to re-create an old world can obscure the trade-offs necessary for surviving the new one. Keeping high-risk indoor businesses open, for example, helps the virus spread within a community, which makes reopening schools harder. “If schools are a priority, you have to put them ahead of something. What is that something?” says Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard. “In an ideal world, they would be the last to close and the first to open, but in many communities, casinos, bars, and tattoo parlors opened before them.” A world with COVID-19 is fundamentally different from one without it, and the former simply cannot include all the trappings of the latter. Cherished summer rituals like camps and baseball games have already been lost; back-to-school traditions and Thanksgiving now hang in the balance. Change is hard to accept, which predisposes people to …
Back in April, Trump imagined the pandemic’s quick end: “Maybe this goes away with heat and light,” he said. From the start, he and others wondered if hot, humid weather might curb the spread of COVID-19, as it does other coronavirus diseases. Many experts countered that seasonal effects wouldn’t stop the new virus, which was already spreading in the tropics. But, fueled by shaky science and speculative stories, people widely latched on to seasonality as a possible savior, before the virus proved that it could thrive in the Arizona, Texas, and Florida summer.
This brand of magical thinking, in which some factor naturally defuses the pandemic, has become a convenient excuse for inaction. Recently, some commentators have argued that the pandemic will imminently fizzle out for two reasons. First, 20 to 50 percent of people have defensive T-cells that recognize the new coronavirus, because they were previously exposed to its milder, common-cold-causing cousins. Second, some modeling studies claim that herd immunity—whereby the virus struggles to find new hosts, because enough people are immune—could kick in when just 20 percent of the population has been infected.
Neither claim is implausible, but neither should be grounds for complacency. No one yet knows if the “cross-reactive” T-cells actually protect against COVID-19, and even if they do, they’re unlikely to stop people from getting infected. Herd immunity, meanwhile, is not a perfect barrier. Even if the low thresholds are correct, a fast-growing and uncontrolled outbreak will still shoot past them. Pursuing this strategy will mean that, in the winter, many parts of the U.S. may suffer what New York City endured in the spring: thousands of deaths and an untold number of lingering disabilities. That alone should be an argument against …
When illness is averted and lives are spared, “nothing happens and all you have is the miracle of a normal, healthy day,” says Howard Koh, a public-health professor at Harvard. “People take that for granted.” Public-health departments are chronically underfunded because the suffering they prevent is invisible. Pandemic preparations are deprioritized in the peaceful years between outbreaks. Even now, many people who have been spared the ravages of COVID-19 argue that the disease wasn’t a big deal, or associate their woes with preventive measures. But the problem is still the disease those measures prevented: The economy is still hurting, mental-health problems are growing, and educational futures have been curtailed, not because of some fearmongering overreaction, but because an uncontrolled pandemic is still afoot.
If anything, the U.S. did not react swiftly or strongly enough. Nations that had previously dealt with emerging viral epidemics, including several in East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, were quick to take the new coronavirus seriously. By contrast, America’s lack of similar firsthand experience, combined with its sense of exceptionalism, might have contributed to its initial sloppiness. “One of my colleagues went to Rwanda in February, and as soon as he hit the airport, they asked about symptoms, checked his temperature, and took his phone number,” says Abraar Karan, an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “In the U.S., I flew in July, and walked out of the airport, no questions asked.”
Even when the virus began spreading within the U.S., places that weren’t initially pummeled seemed to forget that viruses spread. “In April, I was seeing COVID patients in the ER every day,” Karan says. “In Texas, I had friends saying, ‘No one believes it here because we have no cases.’ In L.A., fellow physicians said, ‘Are you sure this is worse than the flu? We’re not seeing anything.’” Three months later, Texas and California saw COVID-19 all too closely. The tendency to ignore threats until they directly affect us has consigned the U.S. to …
In March, Mike Ryan at the World Health Organization advised, “Be fast, have no regrets … The virus will always get you if you don’t move quickly.” The U.S. failed to heed that warning, and has repeatedly found itself several steps behind the coronavirus. That’s partly because exponential growth is counterintuitive, so “we don’t understand that things look fine until right before they’re very not fine,” says Beth Redbird, a sociologist at Northwestern. It’s also because the coronavirus spreads quickly but is slow to reveal itself: It can take a month for infections to lead to symptoms, for symptoms to warrant tests and hospitalizations, and for enough sick people to produce a noticeable spike. Pandemic data are like the light of distant stars, recording past events instead of present ones. This lag separates actions from their consequences by enough time to break our intuition for cause and effect. Policy makers end up acting only when it’s too late. Predictable surges get falsely cast as unexpected surprises.
This reactive rut also precludes long-term planning. In April, Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, told me that “people haven’t understood that [the pandemic] isn’t about the next couple of weeks [but] about the next two years.” Leaders should have taken the long view then. “We should have been thinking about what it would take to ensure schools open in the fall, and prevent the long-term harms of lost children’s development,” Redbird says. Instead, we started working our way through a serial monogamy of solutions, and, like spiraling army ants, marched forward with no sense of the future beyond the next few footsteps.
These errors crop up in all disasters. But the COVID-19 pandemic has special qualities that have exacerbated them. The virus moved quickly enough to upend the status quo in a few months, deepening the allure of the hastily abandoned past. It also moved slowly enough to sweep the U.S. in a patchwork fashion, allowing as-yet-untouched communities to drop their guard. The pandemic grew huge in scope, entangling every aspect of society, and maxing out our capacity to deal with complexity. “People struggle to make rational decisions when they cannot see all the cogs,” says Njoki Mwarumba, an emergency-management professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Full of fear and anxiety, people furiously searched for more information, but because the virus is so new, they instead spiraled into more confusion and uncertainty. And tragically, all of this happened during the presidency of Donald Trump.
Trump embodied and amplified America’s intuition death spiral. Instead of rolling out a detailed, coordinated plan to control the pandemic, he ricocheted from one overhyped cure-all to another, while relying on theatrics such as travel bans. He ignored inequities and systemic failures in favor of blaming China, the WHO, governors, Anthony Fauci, and Barack Obama. He widened the false dichotomy between lockdowns and reopening by regularly tweeting in favor of the latter. He and his allies appealed to magical thinking and steered the U.S. straight into the normality trap by frequently lying that the virus would go away, that the pandemic was ending, that new waves weren’t happening, and that rising case numbers were solely due to increased testing. They have started talking about COVID-19 in the past tense as cases surge in the Midwest.
“It’s like mass gaslighting,” says Martha Lincoln, a medical anthropologist at San Francisco State University. “We were put in a situation where better solutions were closed off but a lot of people had that fact sneak up on them. In the absence of a robust federal response, we’re all left washing our hands and hoping for the best, which makes us more susceptible to magical thinking and individual-level fixes.” And if those fixes never come, “I think people are going to harden into a fatalistic sense that we have to accept whatever the risks are to continue with our everyday lives.”
That might, indeed, be Trump’s next solution. The Washington Post reports that Trump’s new adviser—the neuroradiologist Scott Atlas—is pushing a strategy that lets the virus rip through the non-elderly population in a bid to reach herd immunity. This policy was folly for Sweden, which is nowhere near herd immunity, had one of the world’s highest COVID-19 death rates, and has a regretful state epidemiologist. Although the White House has denied that a formal herd-immunity policy exists, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently changed its guidance to say that asymptomatic people “do not necessarily need a test” even after close contact with an infected person. This change makes no sense: People can still spread the virus before showing symptoms. By effectively recommending less testing, as Trump has specifically called for, the nation’s top public-health agency is depriving the U.S. of the data it needs to resist intuitive errors. “When there’s a refusal to take in the big picture, we are stuck,” Mwarumba says.
The pandemic is now in its ninth month. Uncertainties abound as fall and winter loom. In much of the country, colder weather will gradually pack people into indoor spaces, where the coronavirus more readily spreads. Winter also typically heralds the arrival of the flu and other respiratory viruses, and although the Southern Hemisphere enjoyed an unusually mild flu season, that’s “because of the severe precautions they were taking against COVID-19,” says Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University. “It’s not clear to me that our precautions will be successful enough to also prevent the flu.”
Schools are reopening, which will shape the path of the pandemic in still-uncertain ways. Universities are more predictable: Thanks to magical thinking and misplaced moralism, the U.S. already has at least 51,000 confirmed infections in more than 1,000 colleges across every state. These (underestimated) numbers will grow, because only 20 percent of colleges are doing regular testing, while almost half are not testing at all. As more are forced to stop in-person teaching, students will be sent back to their communities with COVID-19 in tow. “I expect this will blow up outbreaks in places that never had outbreaks, or in places that had outbreaks under control,” Murray says. Further spikes will likely occur after Thanksgiving and Christmas, as people who yearn to return to normal (or who think that the country overreacted) travel to see their family. Despite that risk, the CDC recently dropped its recommendation that out-of-state travelers should quarantine themselves for 14 days.
But many of the experts I spoke with thought it unlikely that “we’ll have cities going full New York,” as Bergstrom puts it. Doctors are getting better at treating the disease. States like Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey have managed to avoid new surges over the summer, showing that local leadership can at least partly compensate for federal laxity. A new generation of cheap, rapid, paper-based tests will hit the market and make it easier to work out who is contagious. And despite the spiral of bad intuitions, many Americans are holding the line: Mask use and support for physical distancing are still high, according to Redbird, who has been tracking pandemic-related attitudes since March. “My feeling is that while things are going to get worse, I’m not sure they’ll be catastrophic, because of situational awareness,” Bill Hanage says.
Meanwhile, Trump seems to be teeing up a vaccine announcement in late October, shortly before the November 3 election. Moncef Slaoui, the scientific head of Operation Warp Speed, told NPR that it’s “extremely unlikely” a vaccine will be ready by then, and many scientists are concerned that the FDA will be pressured into approving a product that hasn’t been adequately tested, as Russia and China already have. Many Americans share this concern. A safe and effective vaccine could finally bring the pandemic under control, but its arrival will also test America’s ability to resist the intuitive errors that have trapped it so far. Vaccination has long been portrayed as the ultimate biomedical silver bullet, separating an era when masks and social distancing mattered from a world where normality has returned. This is yet another false dichotomy. “Everyone’s imagining this moment when all of a sudden, it’s all over, and they can go on vacation,” Natalie Dean says. “But the reality is going to be messier.”
This problem is not unique to COVID-19. It’s more compelling to hope that drug-resistant bacteria can be beaten with viruses than to stem the overuse of antibiotics, to hack the climate than to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, or to invest in a doomed oceanic plastic-catcher than to reduce the production of waste. Throughout its entire history, and more than any other nation, the U.S. has espoused “an almost blind faith in the power of technology as panacea,” writes the historian Howard Segal.* Instead of solving social problems, the U.S. uses techno-fixes to bypass them, plastering the wounds instead of removing the source of injury—and that’s if people even accept the solution on offer.
A third of Americans already say they would refuse a vaccine, whether because of existing anti-vaccine attitudes or more reasonable concerns about a rushed development process. Those who get the shot are unlikely to be fully protected; the FDA is prepared to approve a vaccine that’s at least 50 percent effective—a level comparable to current flu shots. An imperfect vaccine will still be useful. The risk is that the government goes all-in on this one theatrical countermeasure, without addressing the systemic problems that made the U.S. so vulnerable, or investing in the testing and tracing strategies that will still be necessary. “We’re still going to need those other things,” Dean says.
Between these reasons and the time needed for manufacturing and distribution, the pandemic is likely to drag on for months after a vaccine is approved. Already, the event is exacting a psychological toll that’s unlike the trauma of a hurricane or fire. “It’s not the type of disaster that Americans specifically are used to dealing with,” says Samantha Montano of Massachusetts Maritime Academy, who studies disasters. “Famines and complex humanitarian crises are closer approximations.” Health experts are burning out. Long-haulers are struggling to find treatments or support. But many Americans are turning away from the pandemic. “People have stopped watching news about it as much, or talking to friends about it,” Redbird says. “I think we’re all exhausted.” Optimistically, this might mean that people are becoming less anxious and more resilient. More worryingly, it could also mean they are becoming inured to tragedy.
The most accurate model to date predicts that the U.S. will head into November with 220,000 confirmed deaths. More than 1,000 health-care workers have died. One in every 1,125 Black Americans has died, along with similarly disproportionate numbers of Indigenous people, Pacific Islanders, and Latinos. And yet, a recent poll found that 57 percent of Republican voters and 33 percent of independents think the number of deaths is acceptable. “In order for us to mobilize around a social problem, we all have to agree that it’s a problem,” Lori Peek says. “It’s shocking that we haven’t, because you really would have thought that with a pandemic it would be easy.” This is the final and perhaps most costly intuitive error …
The U.S. might stop treating the pandemic as the emergency that it is. Daily tragedy might become ambient noise. The desire for normality might render the unthinkable normal. Like poverty and racism, school shootings and police brutality, mass incarceration and sexual harassment, widespread extinctions and changing climate, COVID-19 might become yet another unacceptable thing that America comes to accept.
Nearly every country has struggled to contain the coronavirus and made mistakes along the way.
China committed the first major failure, silencing doctors who tried to raise alarms about the virus and allowing it to escape from Wuhan. Much of Europe went next, failing to avoid enormous outbreaks. Today, many countries — Japan, Canada, France, Australia and more — are coping with new increases in cases after reopening parts of society.
Yet even with all of these problems, one country stands alone, as the only affluent nation to have suffered a severe, sustained outbreak for more than four months: the United States.
Over the past month, about 1.9 million Americans have tested positive for the virus.
That’s more than five times as many as in all of Europe, Canada, Japan, South Korea and Australia, combined.
Even though some of these countries saw worrying new outbreaks over the past month, including 50,000 new cases in Spain …
… the outbreaks still pale in comparison to those in the United States. Florida, with a population less than half of Spain, has reported nearly 300,000 cases in the same period.
When it comes to the virus, the United States has come to resemble not the wealthy and powerful countries to which it is often compared but instead far poorer countries, like Brazil, Peru and South Africa, or those with large migrant populations, like Bahrain and Oman.
As in several of those other countries, the toll of the virus in the United States has fallen disproportionately on poorer people and groups that have long suffered discrimination. Black and Latino residents of the United States have contracted the virus at roughly three times as high of a rate as white residents.
How did this happen? The New York Times set out to reconstruct the unique failure of the United States, through numerous interviews with scientists and public health experts around the world. The reporting points to two central themes.
First, the United States faced longstanding challenges in confronting a major pandemic. It is a large country at the nexus of the global economy, with a tradition of prioritizing individualism over government restrictions. That tradition is one reason the United States suffers from an unequal health care system that has long produced worse medical outcomes — including higher infant mortality and diabetes rates and lower life expectancy — than in most other rich countries.
“As an American, I think there is a lot of good to be said about our libertarian tradition,” Dr. Jared Baeten, an epidemiologist and vice dean at the University of Washington School of Public Health, said. “But this is the consequence — we don’t succeed as well as a collective.”
The second major theme is one that public health experts often find uncomfortable to discuss because many try to steer clear of partisan politics. But many agree that the poor results in the United States stem in substantial measure from the performance of the Trump administration.
In no other high-income country — and in only a few countries, period — have political leaders departed from expert advice as frequently and significantly as the Trump administration. President Trump has said the virus was not serious; predicted it would disappear; spent weeks questioning the need for masks; encouraged states to reopen even with large and growing caseloads; and promoted medical disinformation.
Some Republican governors have followed his lead and also played down the virus, while others have largely followed the science. Democratic governors have more reliably heeded scientific advice, but their performance in containing the virus has been uneven.
“In many of the countries that have been very successful they had a much crisper strategic direction and really had a vision,” said Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, who wrote a guide to reopening safely for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research group. “I’m not sure we ever really had a plan or a strategy — or at least it wasn’t public.”
Together, the national skepticism toward collective action and the Trump administration’s scattered response to the virus have contributed to several specific failures and missed opportunities, Times reporting shows:
a lack of effective travel restrictions;
repeated breakdowns in testing;
confusing advice about masks;
a misunderstanding of the relationship between the virus and the economy;
and inconsistent messages from public officials.
Already, the American death toll is of a different order of magnitude than in most other countries. With only 4 percent of the world’s population, the United States has accounted for 22 percent of coronavirus deaths. Canada, a rich country that neighbors the United States, has a per capita death rate about half as large. And these gaps may worsen in coming weeks, given the lag between new cases and deaths.
For many Americans who survive the virus or do not contract it, the future will bring other problems. Many schools will struggle to open. And the normal activities of life — family visits, social gatherings, restaurant meals, sporting events — may be more difficult in the United States than in any other affluent country.
In retrospect, one of Mr. Trump’s first policy responses to the virus appears to have been one of his most promising.
On Jan. 31, his administration announced that it was restricting entry to the United States from China: Many foreign nationals — be they citizens of China or other countries — would not be allowed into the United States if they had been to China in the previous two weeks.
It was still early in the spread of the virus. The first cases in Wuhan, China, had been diagnosed about a month before, and the first announced case in the United States had come on Jan. 21. In announcing the new travel policy, Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services, declared that the virus posed “a public health emergency.” Mr. Trump described the policy as his “China ban.”
After the Trump administration acted, several other countries quickly announced their own restrictions on travel from China, including Japan, Vietnam and Australia.
But it quickly became clear that the United States’ policy was full of holes. It did not apply to immediate family members of American citizens and permanent residents returning from China, for example. In the two months after the policy went into place, almost 40,000 people arrived in the United States on direct flights from China.
Even more important, the policy failed to take into account that the virus had spread well beyond China by early February. Later data would show that many infected people arriving in the United States came from Europe. (The Trump administration did not restrict travel from Europe until March and exempted Britain from that ban despite a high infection rate there.)
The administration’s policy also did little to create quarantines for people who entered the United States and may have had the virus.
Authorities in some other places took a far more rigorous approach to travel restrictions.
South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan largely restricted entry to residents returning home. Those residents then had to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival, with the government keeping close tabs to ensure they did not leave their home or hotel. South Korea and Hong Kong also tested for the virus at the airport and transferred anyone who was positive to a government facility.
Australia offers a telling comparison. Like the United States, it is separated from China by an ocean and is run by a conservative leader — Scott Morrison, the prime minister. Unlike the United States, it put travel restrictions at the center of its virus response.
Australian officials noticed in March that the travel restrictions they had announced on Feb. 1 were not preventing the virus from spreading. So they went further.
On March 27, Mr. Morrison announced that Australia would no longer trust travelers to isolate themselves voluntarily. The country would instead mandate that everyone arriving from overseas, including Australian citizens, spend two weeks quarantined in a hotel.
The protocols were strict. As people arrived at an airport, the authorities transported them directly to hotels nearby. People were not even allowed to leave their hotel to exercise. The Australian military helped enforce the rules.
Around the same time, several Australian states with minor outbreaks shut their own borders to keep out Australians from regions with higher rates of infection. That hardening of internal boundaries had not happened since the 1918 flu pandemic, said Ian Mackay, a virologist in Queensland, one of the first states to block entry from other areas.
The United States, by comparison, imposed few travel restrictions, either for foreigners or American citizens. Individual states did little to enforce the rules they did impose.
“People need a bit more than a suggestion to look after their own health,” said Dr. Mackay, who has been working with Australian officials on their pandemic response. “They need guidelines, they need rules — and they need to be enforced.”
Travel restrictions and quarantines were central to the success in controlling the virus in South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia, as well as New Zealand, many epidemiologists believe. In Australia, the number of new cases per day fell more than 90 percent in April. It remained near zero through May and early June, even as the virus surged across much of the United States.
In the past six weeks, Australia has begun to have a resurgence — which itself points to the importance of travel rules. The latest outbreak stems in large part from problems with the quarantine in the city of Melbourne. Compared with other parts of Australia, Melbourne relied more on private security contractors who employed temporary workers — some of whom lacked training and failed to follow guidelines — to enforce quarantines at local hotels. Officials have responded by banning out-of-state travel again and imposing new lockdowns.
Still, the tolls in Australia and the United States remain vastly different. Fewer than 300 Australians have died of complications from Covid-19, the illness caused by the virus. If the United States had the same per capita death rate, about 3,300 Americans would have died, rather than 158,000.
Enacting tough travel restrictions in the United States would not have been easy. It is more integrated into the global economy than Australia is, has a tradition of local policy decisions and borders two other large countries. But there is a good chance that a different version of Mr. Trump’s restrictions — one with fewer holes and stronger quarantines — would have meaningfully slowed the virus’s spread.
Traditionally, public health experts had not seen travel restrictions as central to fighting a pandemic, given their economic costs and the availability of other options, like testing, quarantining and contact tracing, Dr. Baeten, the University of Washington epidemiologist, said. But he added that travel restrictions had been successful enough in fighting the coronavirus around the world that those views may need to be revisited.
“Travel,” he said, “is the hallmark of the spread of this virus around the world.”
On Jan. 16, nearly a week before the first announced case of the coronavirus in the United States, a German hospital made an announcement. Its researchers had developed a test for the virus, which they described as the world’s first.
The researchers posted the formula for the test online and said they expected that countries with strong public health systems would soon be able to produce their own tests. “We’re more concerned about labs in countries where it’s not that easy to transport samples, or staff aren’t trained that thoroughly, or if there is a large number of patients who have to be tested,” Dr. Christian Drosten, the director of the Institute for Virology at the hospital, known as Charité, in Berlin.
It turned out, however, that the testing problems would not be limited to less-developed countries.
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed their own test four days after the German lab did. C.D.C. officials claimed that the American test would be more accurate than the German one, by using three genetic sequences to detect the virus rather than two. The federal government quickly began distributing the American test to state officials.
But the test had a flaw. The third genetic sequence produced inconclusive results, so the C.D.C. told state labs to pause their work. In meetings of the White House’s coronavirus task force, Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the C.D.C. director, played down the problem and said it would soon be solved.
Instead, it took weeks to fix. During that time, the United States had to restrict testing to people who had clear reason to think they had the virus. All the while, the virus was quietly spreading.
By early March, with the testing delays still unresolved, the New York region became a global center of the virus — without people realizing it until weeks later. More widespread testing could have made a major difference, experts said, leading to earlier lockdowns and social distancing and ultimately less sickness and death.
“You can’t stop it if you can’t see it,” Dr. Bruce Aylward, a senior adviser to the director general at the World Health Organization, said.
While the C.D.C. was struggling to solve its testing flaws, Germany was rapidly building up its ability to test. Chancellor Angela Merkel, a chemist by training, and other political leaders were watching the virus sweep across northern Italy, not far from southern Germany, and pushed for a big expansion of testing.
By the time the virus became a problem in Germany, labs around the country had thousands of test kits ready to use. From the beginning, the government covered the cost of the tests. American laboratories often charge patients about $100 for a test.
Without free tests, Dr. Hendrik Streeck, director of the Institute of Virology at the University Hospital Bonn, said at the time, “a young person with no health insurance and an itchy throat is unlikely to go to the doctor and therefore risks infecting more people.”
Germany was soon far ahead of other countries in testing. It was able to diagnose asymptomatic cases, trace the contacts of new patients and isolate people before they could spread the virus. The country has still suffered a significant outbreak. But it has had many fewer cases per capita than Italy, Spain, France, Britain or Canada — and about one-fifth the rate of the United States.
The United States eventually made up ground on tests. In recent weeks, it has been conducting more per capita than any other country, according to Johns Hopkins researchers.
But now there is a new problem: The virus has grown even more rapidly than testing capacity. In recent weeks, Americans have often had to wait in long lines, sometimes in scorching heat, to be tested.
One measure of the continuing troubles with testing is the percentage of tests that come back positive. In a country that has the virus under control, fewer than 5 percent of tests come back positive, according to World Health Organization guidelines. Many countries have reached that benchmark. The United States, even with the large recent volume of tests, has not.
“We do have a lot of testing,” Ms. Rivers, the Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, said. “The problem is we also have a lot of cases.”
The huge demand for tests has overwhelmed medical laboratories, and many need days — or even up to two weeks — to produce results. “That really is not useful for public health and medical management,” Ms. Rivers added. While people are waiting for their results, many are also spreading the virus.
In Belgium recently, test results have typically come back in 48 to 72 hours. In Germany and Greece, it is two days. In France, the wait is often 24 hours.
For the first few months of the pandemic, public health experts could not agree on a consistent message about masks. Some said masks reduced the spread of the virus. Many experts, however, discouraged the use of masks, saying — somewhat contradictorily — that their benefits were modest and that they should be reserved for medical workers.
“We don’t generally recommend the wearing of masks in public by otherwise well individuals because it has not been up to now associated with any particular benefit,” Dr. Michael Ryan, a World Health Organization official, said at a March 30 news conference.
His colleague Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove explained that it was important to “prioritize the use of masks for those who need them most.”
The conflicting advice, echoed by the C.D.C. and others, led to relatively little mask wearing in many countries early in the pandemic. But several Asian countries were exceptions, partly because they had a tradition of mask wearing to avoid sickness or minimize the effects of pollution.
In the following months, scientists around the world began to report two strands of evidence that both pointed to the importance of masks: Research showed that the virus could be transmitted through droplets that hang in the air, and several studies found that the virus spread less frequently in places where people were wearing masks.
On one cruise ship that gave passengers masks after somebody got sick, for example, many fewer people became ill than on a different cruise where people did not wear masks.
Consistent with that evidence was Asia’s success in holding down the number of cases (after China’s initial failure to do so). In South Korea, the per capita death rate is about one-eightieth as large as in the United States; Japan, despite being slow to enact social distancing, has a death rate about one-sixtieth as large.
“We should have told people to wear cloth masks right off the bat,” Dr. George Rutherford of the University of California, San Francisco, said.
In many countries, officials reacted to the emerging evidence with a clear message: Wear a mask.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada began wearing one in May. During a visit to an elementary school, President Emmanuel Macron of France wore a French-made blue mask that complemented his suit and tie. Zuzana Caputova, the president of Slovakia, created a social media sensation by wearing a fuchsia-colored mask that matched her dress.
In the United States, however, masks did not become a fashion symbol. They became a political symbol.
Mr. Trump avoided wearing one in public for months. He poked fun at a reporter who wore one to a news conference, asking the reporter to take it off and saying that wearing one was “politically correct.” He described former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s decision to wear one outdoors as “very unusual.”
Many other Republicans and conservative news outlets, like Fox News, echoed his position. Mask wearing, as a result, became yet another partisan divide in a highly polarized country.
Throughout much of the Northeast and the West Coast, more than 80 percent of people wore masks when within six feet of someone else. In more conservative areas, like the Southeast, the share was closer to 50 percent.
A March survey found that partisanship was the biggest predictor of whether Americans regularly wore masks — bigger than their age or whether they lived in a region with a high number of virus cases. In many of the places where people adopted a hostile view of masks, including Texas and the Southeast, the number of virus cases began to soar this spring.
Throughout March and April, Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia and staff members held long meetings inside a conference room at the State Capitol in Atlanta. They ordered takeout lunches from local restaurants like the Varsity and held two daily conference calls with the public health department, the National Guard and other officials.
One of the main subjects of the meetings was when to end Georgia’s lockdown and reopen the state’s economy. By late April, Mr. Kemp decided that it was time.
Georgia had not met the reopening criteria laid out by the Trump administration (and many outside health experts considered those criteria too lax). The state was reporting about 700 new cases a day, more than when it shut down on April 3.
Nonetheless, Mr. Kemp went ahead. He said that Georgia’s economy could not wait any longer, and it became one of the first states to reopen.
“I don’t give a damn about politics right now,” he said at an April 20 news conference announcing the reopening. He went on to describe business owners with employees at home who were “going broke, worried about whether they can feed their children, make the mortgage payment.”
Four days later, across Georgia, barbers returned to their chairs, wearing face masks and latex gloves. Gyms and bowling alleys were allowed to reopen, followed by restaurants on April 27. The stay-at-home order expired at 11:59 p.m. on April 30.
Mr. Kemp’s decision was part of a pattern: Across the United States, caseloads were typically much higher when the economy reopened than in other countries.
As the United States endured weeks of closed stores and rising unemployment this spring, many politicians — particularly Republicans, like Mr. Kemp — argued that there was an unavoidable trade-off between public health and economic health. And if crushing the virus meant ruining the economy, maybe the side effects of the treatment were worse than the disease.
Dan Patrick, the Republican lieutenant governor of Texas, put the case most bluntly, and became an object of scorn, especially from the political left, for doing so. “There are more important things than living,” Mr. Patrick said in a television interview the same week that Mr. Kemp reopened Georgia.
It may have been an inartful line, but Mr. Patrick’s full argument was not wholly dismissive of human life. He was instead suggesting that the human costs of shutting down the economy — the losses of jobs and income and the associated damages to living standards and people’s health — were greater than the costs of a virus that kills only a small percentage of people who get it.
“We are crushing the economy,” he said, citing the damage to his own children and grandchildren. “We’ve got to take some risks and get back in the game and get this country back up and running.”
The trouble with the argument, epidemiologists and economists agree, was that public health and the economy’s health were not really in conflict.
Early in the pandemic, Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago economist and former Obama administration official, proposed what he called the first rule of virus economics: “The best way to fix the economy is to get control of the virus,” he said. Until the virus was under control, many people would be afraid to resume normal life and the economy would not function normally.
The events of the last few months have borne out Mr. Goolsbee’s prediction. Even before states announced shutdown orders in the spring, many families began sharply reducing their spending. They were responding to their own worries about the virus, not any official government policy.
And the end of lockdowns, like Georgia’s, did not fix the economy’s problems. It instead led to a brief increase in spending and hiring that soon faded.
In the weeks after states reopened, the virus began surging. Those that opened earliest tended to have worse outbreaks, according to a Times analysis. The Southeast fared especially badly.
In June and July, Georgia reported more than 125,000 new virus cases, turning it into one of the globe’s new hot spots. That was more new cases than Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Australia combined during that time frame.
Americans, frightened by the virus’s resurgence, responded by visiting restaurants and stores less often. The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits has stopped falling. The economy’s brief recovery in April and May seems to have petered out in June and July.
In large parts of the United States, officials chose to reopen before medical experts thought it wise, in an attempt to put people back to work and spark the economy. Instead, the United States sparked a huge new virus outbreak — and the economy did not seem to benefit.
“Politicians are not in control,” Mr. Goolsbee said. “They got all the illness and still didn’t fix their economies.”
The situation is different in the European Union and other regions that have had more success reducing new virus cases. Their economies have begun showing some promising signs, albeit tentative ones. In Germany, retail sales and industrial production have risen, and the most recent unemployment rate was 6.4 percent. In the United States, it was 11.1 percent.
The United States has not performed uniquely poorly on every measure of the virus response.
Mask wearing is more common than throughout much of Scandinavia and Australia, according to surveys by YouGov and Imperial College London. The total death rate is still higher in Spain, Italy and Britain.
But there is one way — in addition to the scale of the continuing outbreaks and deaths — that the United States stands apart: In no other high-income country have the messages from political leaders been nearly so mixed and confusing.
These messages, in turn, have been amplified by television stations and websites friendly to the Republican Party, especially Fox News and the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which operates almost 200 local stations. To anybody listening to the country’s politicians or watching these television stations, it would have been difficult to know how to respond to the virus.
Mr. Trump’s comments, in particular, have regularly contradicted the views of scientists and medical experts.
The day after the first American case was diagnosed, he said, “We have it totally under control.” In late February, he said: “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.” Later, he incorrectly stated that any American who wanted a test could get one. On July 28, he falsely proclaimed that “large portions of our country” were “corona-free.”
He has also promoted medical misinformation about the virus. In March, Mr. Trump called it “very mild” and suggested it was less deadly than the common flu. He has encouraged Americans to treat it with the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, despite a lack of evidence about its effectiveness and concerns about its safety. At one White House briefing, he mused aloud about injecting people with disinfectant to treat the virus.
These comments have helped create a large partisan divide in the country, with Republican-leaning voters less willing to wear masks or remain socially distant. Some Democratic-leaning voters and less political Americans, in turn, have decided that if everybody is not taking the virus seriously, they will not either. State leaders from both parties have sometimes created so many exceptions about which workplaces can continue operating normally that their stay-at-home orders have had only modest effects.
“It doesn’t seem we have had the same unity of purpose that I would have expected,” Ms. Rivers, the Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, said. “You need everyone to come together to accomplish something big.”
Across much of Europe and Asia, as well as in Canada, Australia and elsewhere, leaders have delivered a consistent message: The world is facing a deadly virus, and only careful, consistent action will protect people.
Many of those leaders have then pursued aggressive action. Mr. Trump and his top aides, by contrast, persuaded themselves in April that the virus was fading. They have also declined to design a national strategy for testing or other virus responses, leading to a chaotic mix of state policies.
“If you had to summarize our approach, it’s really poor federal leadership — disorganization and denial,” said Andy Slavitt, who ran Medicare and Medicaid from 2015 to 2017. “Watch Angela Merkel. Watch how she communicates with the public. Watch how Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand does it. They’re very clear. They’re very consistent about what the most important priorities are.”
New York — both the city and the state — offers a useful case study. Like much of Europe, New York responded too slowly to the first wave of the virus. As late as March 15, Mayor Bill de Blasio encouraged people to go to their neighborhood bar.
Soon, the city and state were overwhelmed. Ambulances wailed day and night. Hospitals filled to the breaking point. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo — a Democrat, like Mr. de Blasio — was slow to protect nursing home residents, and thousands died. Earlier action in New York could have saved a significant number of lives, epidemiologists say.
By late March, however, New York’s leaders understood the threat, and they reversed course.
They insisted that people stay home. They repeated the message every day, often on television. When other states began reopening, New York did not. “You look at the states that opened fast without metrics, without guardrails, it’s a boomerang,” Mr. Cuomo said on June 4.
The lockdowns and the consistent messages had a big effect. By June, New York and surrounding states had some of the lowest rates of virus spread in the country. Across much of the Southeast, Southwest and West Coast, on the other hand, the pandemic was raging.
Many experts now say that the most disappointing part of the country’s failure is that the outcome was avoidable.
What may not have been avoidable was the initial surge of the virus: The world’s success in containing previous viruses, like SARS, had lulled many people into thinking a devastating pandemic was unlikely. That complacency helps explains China’s early mistakes, as well as the terrible death tolls in the New York region, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Britain and other parts of Europe.
But these countries and dozens more — as well as New York — have since shown that keeping the virus in check is feasible.
For all of the continuing uncertainty about how this new coronavirus is transmitted and how it affects the human body, much has become clear. It often spreads indoors, with close human contact. Talking, singing, sneezing and coughing play a major role in transmission. Masks reduce the risk. Restarting normal activity almost always leads to new cases that require quick action — testing, tracing of patients and quarantining — to keep the virus in check.
When countries and cities have heeded these lessons, they have rapidly reduced the spread of the virus and been able to move back, gingerly, toward normal life. In South Korea, fans have been able to attend baseball games in recent weeks. In Denmark, Italy and other parts of Europe, children have returned to school.
In the United States, the virus continues to overwhelm daily life.
“This isn’t actually rocket science,” said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, who ran the New York City health department and the C.D.C. for a combined 15 years. “We know what to do, and we’re not doing it.”