America’s Response to the Pandemic Reads Like Satire
Remembering March 11th, the day everything changed
Welcome back to Doomsday Scenario, Issue #8, where we ask whether things really are as bad as they seem?
This week, let’s look back—way back, to 2020—at when things were actually worse than they seemed.
It’s hard to believe that this week marks the third year of the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, at least officially. March 11, 2020, was the day that the World Health Organization declared an official pandemic. Later in the spring, I wrote an oral history of that remarkable day—from the WHO’s announcement to the volatile stock market to the flurry of the evening’s 90 minutes that the country will long remember: The President’s Oval Office address, the shutdown of the NBA, and Tom Hanks and his wife announcing they were Covid positive.
At the time, this all seemed like a short-term problem. None of us could have imagined the years-long disruption to our lives that it would launch. Now, today, some 1.1 million Americans have died from Covid—the equivalent of Dallas or Austin being wiped out in its entity.
Today, the follies, foibles, and debacles of that first year seem like ancient history, even as President Biden admits the publicly well-understood fact that we’re through treating this pandemic like a pandemic, even as it continues to disrupt lives, kill hundreds of Americans, and threaten the most vulnerable in our society. In the intervening three years, the politics and polarization of Covid has divided our country in ways that seem obvious in hindsight (of course there would be a red-blue pandemic divide!) but should remain shocking to our civic sensibility.
Our country has already started to memory-hole and forget what happened in 2020.
It’s not the first time, in fact. One of the oddities for historians about the 1918 Spanish flu is how it was all but forgotten in history for decades; for various reasons—the trauma of the event, the backdrop of the Great War that caused a media blackout in much of the country—that pandemic, which killed more people than both world wars, is almost entirely overlooked in textbooks. The first major history of the event, in 1974, was literally called, “America’s Forgotten Pandemic.”
Decades from now, as we look back at how America has responded to the novel Coronavirus, Americans will likely wish they could forget how badly the country responded to the epidemic.
Here, for posterity, is a letter for our future:
Dear Future Historians of 2050,
As you look back decades later at the novel Coronavirus, which we all came to know as Covid-19, in 2019 and 2020, you’re going to have a hard time believing how bad, disorganized, and ineffective the US government’s response was, so I want to clarify some facts for you about how the United States responded to this global pandemic in its first year.
Yes, South Korea and the US recorded their first cases on that same day, January 20th, and over the next nine months, South Korea, with one-sixth the US population, had just 460 deaths, while the US had 225,000—nearly five hundred times the number of deaths. Yes, the US so bungled its response that while accounting for just 4.25 percent of the world’s population, our country accounted for more than a fifth of the global death toll; Florida alone, with its population of just 21 million, recorded by October more than 780,000 cases, while the entire 80 million people of Germany have seen just 425,000.
Yes, multiple US lawmakers—including the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee—were investigated for insider trading after appearing to dump stocks that would be devastated by the looming pandemic even as they publicly reassured constituents that everything was under control. Yes, the president knew better too: He told reporter Bob Woodward as the pandemic hit the nation’s shores that it was going to be bad, even as he continued to mislead the American public. “This thing is a killer if it gets you. If you’re the wrong person, you don’t have a chance,” he said privately, three days after tweeting that soon “the Invisible Enemy will be in full retreat.” He told Woodward, “This rips you apart. It is the plague.”
Yes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wasted months by eschewing the global standard on Covid test kits and attempting to build its own, which in the end didn’t work anyway. Yes, we never built a contact tracing app—even while other countries, like Germany and Australia, raced ahead—and squandered months without building an effective corps of contact-tracers who would help the economy get back to normal and allow people to resume their daily life.
Yes, in the wealthiest and most advanced economy in the world and despite having had months of warning as the disease ravaged China first, US hospital workers wore garbage bags and swim goggles for protection because we ran so short of equipment. Yes, medical personnel were told to reuse the same mask for an entire shift—even days or weeks—and when they pointed out respirators three years out-of-date, they were told to just take off the expiration sticker. Yes, a New York nurse terrified about the shortage of protective gear turned to an online fundraiser and received $12,000 from the public—and then was suspended by her hospital for distributing “unauthorized” protective gear. One ER doctor told me in the midst of New York’s worst, “[Our protective equipment is] not China-grade, but I don’t know anyone has that right now.” Yes, in the midst of the pandemic, a private-equity-backed health care company cut salaries and benefits for emergency room workers.
Yes, the dead from New York’s first wave so overwhelmed the city at the pandemic’s peak—a New Yorker was dying every two minutes—that crematoriums’ brick ovens collapsed from overuse. Bodies were really stored in casket showrooms and buried in mass graves on a deserted government-owned island; neighbors called to complain about the smell of decomposing bodies when refrigerated morgue trailers broke down.
Yes, America’s social safety net was so weak that seventy years after Harry Truman first pushed for national health care, the US remained the only western industrialized nation to not offer universal health care, which meant that 50 million Americans lost their health care when they lost their jobs amid the pandemic. Yes, we really did measure the breadlines of hungry families in need amid the pandemic in miles: A 25-mile-long line for food in Texas, a 15-mile-long line in Los Angeles, 5 miles in my hometown of Montpelier, Vermont.
Yes, despite heroic work by medical professionals on the front lines, the health care system’s response to the pandemic was so shameful and unequal that your chances of surviving the disease largely depended on the color of your skin and whether you lived in a wealthy neighborhood or a poor neighborhood. Covid patients at New York hospitals serving the city’s poorest areas were three times more likely to die than patients across town at the wealthiest hospitals; one doctor at a struggling hospital estimated that he could have saved two or three people out of every ten who died had he had the equipment and staffing of the wealthier hospitals. Nationally, Latinos and Black Americans were three times as likely to become infected and twice as likely to die as white Americans.
Yes, the country’s medical insurance system was so broken that there was no set price on critical Covid tests, meaning when two patients in Texas were tested at the same time at the same place, one was charged $199 and the other $6,408. Even those dying of the disease in the US were younger than elsewhere in the world because our response was so poor.
Yes, the government’s response was so broken that there was an actual pandemic playbook handed over to the Trump administration during the transition in 2017 that they simply ignored (It was 69 pages long and you can read it here.), and the White House—despite being warned of the real possibility of a pandemic—simply closed the office meant to plan for such events.
Yes, the president did say the disease was just “going to disappear” on its own, spent whole evenings retweeting unproven cures for the disease, and later he really did suggest in a White House press briefing that injecting or ingesting bleach might cure the virus, leading Lysol’s manufacturer to plead to the public not to ingest its product.
He announced that Google was building a website to help Americans get tested, which was news to Google.
He really did spend two months publicly promoting and touting an untested cure, hydroxychloroquine, and Florida’s Republican governor ordered a million doses of the drug that turned out to be useless after testing showed the president’s preferred cure was ineffective.
Yes, the president really said he didn’t want a cruise ship filled with dying passengers to dock in the United States for help because it would skew up America’s statistics. Later, he really did similarly tell a campaign crowd that he told his staff to slow down testing because higher numbers looked bad.
Amazingly, it’s even true that the President of the United States said aid should not be doled out to states who weren’t appropriately “appreciative” of him. Yes, in order to deliver a photo op at their commencement, the president ordered the 1,100 graduating cadets of West Point back to campus and forced them to quarantine for 14 days so he could address them.
Yes, in the midst of the worst of the spring disaster, the president turned to his real estate developer son-in-law to lead the government’s response, causing confusion and wasted money. And, yes, in the midst of the pandemic, the White House chief of staff hosted a lavish wedding for his daughter, violating the state’s pandemic gathering rules.
Yes, the Trump administration directly stepped into the FEMA’s purchasing process to rush through nearly a billion dollars in emergency contracts outside normal channels. Yes, FEMA spent $10 million buying COVID-19 testing equipment it later realized were faulty, and the US government gave multiple, multi-million dollar emergency contracts for medical equipment to former administration aides with no record in federal contracts, and had to return hundreds of thousands of masks when the equipment didn’t work. Yes, the Trump administration gave a six-day-old Texas company $7.3 million for sterile testing equipment that turned out to be just mini plastic soda bottles that workers loaded into bins with snow shovels.
Yes, the ventilators in the national stockpile didn’t work because the Trump administration had let the maintenance contract lapse. States, desperate for protective equipment, competed against each other bidding up prices, found their stashes seized by the federal government, gave police escorts to supply convoys, and ran covert operations to sneak in necessary medical equipment.
Yes, Republican officials took months to embrace and publicly push for Americans to wear masks because they didn’t want to contradict the president. Yes, the president himself refused to wear a mask while touring an actual mask factory, and the vice president didn’t wear a mask while touring the Mayo Clinic.
(And when your research gets there, you won’t believe what happened in 2021 with the roll-out and public adoption of life-saving, miracle vaccine the government developed in record time! Let’s just say that despite it being highly effective and literally life-saving, the politics of the roll-out didn’t go smoothly!)
Yes, armed right-wing militias really did storm the Michigan legislature and force the closure of the state capitol to protest being told to stay at home, even as the state was one of the hardest hit in the nation by the pandemic. Gun-touting men patrolled parking lots to protect American’s God-given right to get a tattoo or a haircut amid a pandemic, in defiance of orders closing such establishments. And, yes, the FBI broke up three different plots by armed right-wing groups to kidnap governors who mandated masks or stay-at-home orders.
Yes, customers in numerous states really responded with violence when they were told to wear masks inside stores; a security guard at a Family Dollar store was really shot to death by a Michigan customer’s family after he asked one of them to wear a mask inside the store, another customer angry about being told to wear a mask at a Colorado Waffle House shot the cook, and a security guard at a California Target had his arm broken in a fight after stopping two men not wearing masks in the store. Yes, a 17-year-old worker at a “Sesame Street” theme park had his jaw displaced and required surgery after being assaulted by a couple who he asked to follow state mask guidelines.
Yes, as the nation’s death toll passed 200,000, the president of the United States held a maskless “super-spreader” event in the midst of the pandemic, an event that sickened his own staff, led to the hospitalization in the Intensive Care Unit of one of his closest advisors, and the quarantine of the nation’s top military leaders. The president himself was rushed by helicopter to the hospital, where he spent a weekend being pumped full of experimental drugs and where he took a joyride around the hospital to greet supporters.
Of course, there did turn out to be some amazing irony amid the pandemic: Yes, Americans really did complain about their White Fragility books not being delivered fast enough by Black bookstores, and the Ayn Rand Institute really did take the government bailout money amid the pandemic. And yes, after years of promising that Mexico would pay for a border wall, Donald Trump sort of succeeded: The US so fumbled its response to Covid-19, Mexico moved to close its border to keep Americans out.
Yes, that all really happened—and more. Good luck, future historians, about figuring out what this all meant for America, because we seem pretty reluctant to talk about any of this now.