Why this failure

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As I write these lines, of the world’s 10.5 million COVID-19 cases, 2.7 million have been in America. Over 130,000 Americans have lost their lives; world-wide fatalities have been half a million. Till now no country has suffered as much. Other populous countries have not tested as much as America has done; hence, American figures are closer to the actual number of positive cases there as compared to those indicated in many other countries. Nevertheless, America’s record of handling the COVID-19 crisis has brought the world’s pre-eminent country little credit. Certainly, it should have done much better especially as it has an advanced health and medical system though its pro-profit orientation makes it beset with problems highlighted by its difficulties in handling this crisis.

The reasons for America’s chaotic response to the COVID-19 challenge can be segregated into two broad categories: leadership and systemic. At this time America needed a consistent, methodical and visionary leader who could span its many and diverse divides, and set an example of responsible personal conduct. In President Trump it has the exact opposite. For some weeks he sought to take charge. He held daily press briefings with his top medical and other concerned officials in attendance but his statements did not inspire confidence. At times they were bizarre.

Now Trump is focussed on the coming Presidential elections which are four months away. Consequently, COVID-19 management for him is being driven by electoral considerations. He has sought to shift the narrative away from his administration’s tardy and contradictory initial response. He has targeted China and the WHO. Both have much to answer for but their culpabilities cannot obscure Trump’s poor COVID-19 management.

The US political system is federal and power on many issues, including health management, vests in the states and further still in the counties, which can be compared to Indian districts. The counties are run by elected officials who act independently in local matters depending on the laws of each state. This not only makes co-ordinated national responses almost impossible it also makes state-wide responses difficult too. This has also been witnessed in the handling of COVID-19. For instance, states have differed widely on the issue of lock downs, social distancing and even on the wearing of masks.

After equivocating initially on the need for people to put on masks doctors unanimously advocated its universal use in public places. Such advice is based on the manner the virus spreads; doctors have gained greater knowledge about its ways since its origin in Wuhan, China and its global spread from there. Clearly, there can be no rational objections to the wearing of masks in public places as a measure to control the spread of COVID-19. However, the opposite was seen in Palm Beach county in America’s Florida state.

Florida is America’s third largest state in population terms. It escaped the initial rush of COVID-19 cases as New York experienced. Florida authorities showed complacency. Now it is among the worst hit states. Infections are rising fast. As part of the steps to combat the pandemic Palm Beach county’s Board of Commissioners held a public hearing on the question of making wearing masks compulsory in public places. A vociferous group of people opposed the proposal. The invoked grounds which show that even in the world’s most powerful country with a good primary and secondary education system there are people who adopt unscientific approaches.

For some wearing masks was an interference with “God’s wonderful breathing system”. For others a law to make wearing them compulsory would be “Devil’s law”. Yet others said it would be unconstitutional, restricting freedom of choice. These voices did not prevail for the commissioners passed the proposal making mask wearing mandatory in public places. All this shows that mask wearing is now a political issue in America. This has exposed the weaknesses of the American system in dealing with pandemics.

Some opponents of mask wearing are Trump supporters. Obviously, they do not take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously. Trump’s own attention has shifted to the revival of the economy. It was doing well till COVID-19 struck. The lockdowns have naturally led to large scale unemployment. The vast monetary and fiscal stimulus has cushioned the blow but the great dislocation has led to a recession. This is not good news for Trump. Hence, his focus is now on opening up of the economy so that his electoral prospects are not hit further.

Leaders of countries where national elections are not imminent have also become more and more inclined to give primacy to their economies while emphasising on their peoples to take all precautions against the virus. This is particularly so in developing countries. These countries simply do not have the luxury of sustaining very long periods of lockdowns. The test of leaders and the administrative systems of these countries lies in motivating people to follow social distancing as much as they can.

I have added the caveat for it is difficult to do so in crowded living conditions. The irony is that even where conditions, such as in Palm Beach county, permit people to observe social distancing there are large numbers who do not wish to do so. Surely, COVID-19 will provide social scientists with rich data to consider different aspects of social behaviour. It will also give international relations specialists much to study on how the international system responded to this great challenge and why it failed to put together cooperative and coordinated responses.