Comment: Our leaders squandered our efforts to control Covid

While we sheltered in place, federal and state leaders wasted their chance to develop a response.

By David Perry / The Washington Post

When I first heard about the plans for social distancing in late February as a response to the coronavirus, I thought it was impossible, given Americans’ tendency to value individualism over the common good.

But Americans did something extraordinary: They trusted the science, accepted the concept of social distancing, went home and stayed there. It came at great financial and emotional cost, but most of us did this in hopes of preventing mass death from a pandemic. Even when we shut down, far too many were left exposed to the virus due to our inequalities around race, class, gender, disability, how we treat our elderly and more. Everyone sacrificed though, even as some sacrificed everything.

All of it was wasted.

Since the coronavirus arrived, Americans have come together in greater unity than I would have expected, only to have decision-makers squander our efforts: The Trump administration was focused more on appearances than results. New York’s Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio hesitated too long to close schools and playgrounds, and kept going for walks in Brooklyn even as he demanded New Yorkers stay home (he lives in Manhattan). Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, led with more resolve, but a ProPublica investigation revealed that he sent Covid-19 patients to nursing homes, leading to massive rates of infection among the elderly. In the American South and Southwest, Republican governors underplayed the threat and opened too soon. Nearly everything our most prominent leaders did was wrong, even as a not-so-silent majority of Americans keeps trying to do the right things.

In January, we were told not to worry and instead to focus on getting flu shots because the government would handle the coronavirus. But by the time President Trump restricted air travel from China on Feb. 2, it was far too late. His announcement later that he would suspend travel from Europe created chaos while the virus quietly spread here. Neither ban was effective in stopping travelers who originated in the relevant regions, as they caught only people on direct flights. De Blasio suggested as late as March 2 that everyone keep calm and carry on shopping. That might have been a good message if the federal government was building hospital capacity and lining up more personal protective equipment. But it wasn’t.

In February, we were told not to bother wearing masks — partially because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was concerned about a run on medical-grade masks — so we didn’t. By the time all the experts shifted to promoting universal masking, the practice had become a badge of political identity rather than a common-sense public health precaution. In Hong Kong, a 97 percent rate of mask compliance controlled the pandemic, and although our culture is different, we could have done that here. Despite viral videos of people screaming about masks in grocery stores, most Americans are willing to wear them. But that confusion has yet to be resolved, as too many Republican leaders keep saying masking is about choice. Although the president said he thought wearing a mask made him look like the Lone Ranger, he still won’t back mandatory masking.

In March, we were told to stay at home to protect ourselves and each other. We did, for months. Despite some high-profile protests, most Americans did go along because we understood the need to slow down the rate of infections while also increasing how many people can be treated simultaneously (with PPE, ventilators, available personnel, converted hospital beds to ICU beds, and the development of temporary hospital facilities).

But citizens only have the power to flatten the curve; and we did at least slow the rate of growth (without reducing transmissions sufficiently). Unfortunately, the lack of financial support from the federal government has forced people to go back to work, increasing the pain of shutdowns and shortening their duration. Moreover, with a few exceptions, states have not increased their capacity to test, trace and treat. ICUs are already bursting in this latest spurt of cases in Arizona, Florida, Texas and other states, and only now are temporary hospitals being re-erected.

Instead, states were left to compete against one another as the Trump administration staged dog-and-pony shows intended to juice the stock market, boost ratings and make the president feel good about himself. Trump announced to great fanfare that Google would build a website to find tests and that private retailers like Walmart and CVS would host testing facilities in their parking lots.

Neither happened, and the lack of a national testing system still hinders our ability to locate the virus.

Only about 3,000 people were tested per day by early March, long after community spread required much more vigorous testing to halt the pandemic. Today we are testing about 500,000 a day, which is better but not enough. Experts say more than a million daily tests are needed at this point and we are running out of lab capacity. Many states have mishandled their own public health infrastructure. Federal oversight could have solved this, but instead Trump left states on their own.

Even if we had been testing at a reasonable level, it might have done little good because no state built a sufficient network of contact-tracers to map and halt the spread of the virus. Florida touted its 1,000 contact-tracers but did not make the details public, and epidemiologists say they need as many as 6,000 to keep up with the population.

But Democratic states such as California are behind, too; that state only recently expanded efforts to get 15 tracers per 100,000 people. This needed to start in March in coordination with national leadership. This is not a case of hindsight being 20/20, either: Epidemiologists were warning about this from the start. Such countries as Iceland and New Zealand, admittedly smaller than the United States but comparable to many states, beat the pandemic by aggressively testing and tracing when there were few enough cases for that to make a difference. We didn’t. Now there are too many cases.

Social distancing was not an end goal. It was a burden unequally shared, and those of us able to work remotely for full pay can’t expect essential workers and their families to shoulder all the risks alone. But beyond that, we humans are social animals who, by and large, need contact with each other to thrive.

I don’t blame people who rush back to bars and parties once shutdown orders are lifted, even as they pose a high risk. Critics of social distancing tout the burden on mental health, the risk of domestic violence. They aren’t wrong. Social distancing was a tool to give our governments enough time to respond. They wasted that time.

This isn’t to say there were not important lessons. We learned that masks stop the spread of the virus, which we didn’t know when all this started. Second, and perhaps more importantly, we have learned that most Americans are surprisingly willing to respect good public health guidelines when properly led. Good leadership can still emerge, at least at the state level. The lies and misinformation and videos of people irate about wearing masks do not reflect this incredible act of self-sacrifice by the American public.

Americans want to wear masks. But that can’t cover for our leaders’ past mistakes and won’t compensate for their future ones.

David Perry is a journalist and senior academic adviser to the history department at the University of Minnesota.

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