Commentary: Covid has resisted both sides’ political scripts

Fitting the pandemic into a particular narrative hasn’t worked well for conservatives or liberals.

By Ramesh Ponnuru / Bloomberg Opinion

Covid-19’s path of destruction has not exempted the pieties about it. People who said it was “just the flu” don’t look wise after nearly 540,000 deaths in the United States. But “14 days to flatten the curve” didn’t turn out to be prescient either.

The more partisan the narrative, the worse it has fared. Liberals have spent much of the pandemic fretting about red-state irresponsibility. But the four states with the highest percentage of covid deaths all vote consistently for Democratic presidential candidates. Florida, though a consistent target of progressive criticism, has a death rate well below the national average. Some conservatives, for their part, predicted that we’d stop hearing about the pandemic as soon as the election was over. Instead, the deadliest weeks came after it, and both politicians and the press kept talking about it.

Our thinking about the American response to covid has too often followed this kind of partisan script, with former President Trump’s critics calling the U.S. a “failed state” and his fans minimizing his errors. After more than a year with the virus, maybe it’s time to take a more clear-eyed look?

With so many deaths, it would be callous to call the response a success. But the notion that the U.S. has performed distinctively poorly — as Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control, asserts in the Wall Street Journal, implicitly blaming Trump — does not match the evidence, either. Among the world’s rich countries, the U.S. has a middling covid death rate: better than the United Kingdom or Italy, worse than France or Sweden.

The U.S. case fatality rate is lower than any of those countries, and low overall. We seem, that is, to be doing particularly well at treating those people who contract the illness. We are also getting people vaccinated much faster than the European Union. On both those measures, Americans are faring better even than people in Canada, which has had an enviably low death rate.

But there’s another complication in these cross-country comparisons: We don’t really know what causes some countries to suffer more or less than others, even if we assume that all the data is equally trustworthy. Siddhartha Mukherjee reports in The New Yorker: “For many statisticians, virologists and public-health experts, the regional disparities in covid-19 mortality represent the greatest conundrum of the pandemic.” (In an aside, he voices the conventional wisdom that the U.S. government botched its response but does not elaborate.)

Economic policymakers in the U.S. took vigorous action to alleviate the consequences of the pandemic. Congress and Trump provided nearly $4 trillion in relief funds in 2020, and President Biden will soon receive a package that will spend more than $1.8 trillion. The Federal Reserve cut interest rates and promised to keep them down, as well as establishing new lending facilities.

These policies had their faults. It would have been better for Congress to make unemployment benefits adjust automatically to changed conditions, rather than stopping and starting as Congress sporadically took up the question. The Trump Treasury Department led by Steven Mnuchin initially imposed counterproductive restrictions on the loans Congress wanted to keep small businesses afloat. Overall, though, the U.S. economy held up better than most of its peers. Disposable income actually rose during the crisis thanks to all of the relief money.

As for Trump: Parts of his covid record are indefensible. He said it would disappear like magic. He praised state lockdown policies, he criticized state lockdown policies, he pretended he controlled state lockdown policies. He held dense indoor rallies. He promoted conspiracy theories about the virus. He repeatedly complained about how testing for covid generated bad news. He disengaged from legislative negotiations over covid relief for months at a time, only to swoop in at the end to no effect other than delaying enactment.

On the other hand, Operation Warp Speed was a smashing success, yielding highly effective vaccines in record time. Vaccine development has been a testament to the strengths of both the public and the private sector in the U.S. Maybe it would have gone as well under a different president. But Trump was the one in charge.

The country’s health outcomes — especially the death rates that put it in the middle of the pack for rich countries — also make it hard to gauge the effect of Trump’s irresponsibility. Would there have been more mask usage in crowded indoor settings, and thus less transmission, if Trump had consistently supported it? Probably. Would it have been enough to make a significant difference in the course of the pandemic? I suspect Trump cost some Americans their lives, needlessly. But all we’ve got is guesswork. Covid just keeps refusing to cooperate in providing us with neat political lessons.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

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