Commentary: The US is failing the test of the century

Commentary: The US is failing the test of the century

A new wave and second lockdown would be a bigger hit to wealth than a cautious return to work, but US President Donald Trump is refusing to listen, says the Financial Times' Edward Luce.

U.S. President Trump leads daily coronavirus response briefing at the White House in Washington
U.S. President Donald Trump arrives for the daily coronavirus task force briefing in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, US, Apr 15, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Leah Millis)

NEW YORK CITY: Like an asteroid, coronavirus is the textbook example of an exogenous shock. The threat came from beyond.

Yet the pathogen offers a unique stress test of each country’s resilience. Some nation states are holding up well. In spite of its unmatched scientific resources, the US is not.

More worrying, it is showing little sign of lifting its performance. Six weeks after its first coronavirus death, America’s learning curve remains flatter than its infection rate. It should be the other way round. 

NOT ENOUGH TESTING

The biggest worry is that the US still lacks a road map. The federal government has only a weak grasp on how many Americans are infected with COVID-19, a clear measure of the mortality rate, and therefore the extent of immunity in the country.

Without more tests, the US is travelling blind. Just 1 per cent of the country, 3.2 million people, have been tested so far. In early March, Mike Pence, the vice-president, promised 4 million tests within a week.

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READ: Commentary: The great COVID-19 race for protective medical gear and ventilators

The same day, President Donald Trump said anybody in the US who wanted a test could get one. That remains as untrue today as it was then. 

The stubborn fact is that the US is not churning out enough kits. The average number of daily tests has been stuck at 140,000 for the past two weeks. That is far below the level that scientists say is required to gauge the pandemic’s reach.

Cyclists ride through a nearly empty Times Square during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New
Cyclists ride through a nearly empty Times Square in Manhattan during the COVID-10 outbreak in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, New York on, Mar 31, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid)

Some say the US should be testing 10 times that number to understand the spread of the disease. Others want half-a-million a day.

Either way, testing has hit a very low plateau, which is a metric of negligence. Without a grasp of the facts, the US will not find its way out. 

WAKING UP LATE

The deepest puzzle is the gap between wishes and action. Mr Trump was not alone in waking up very late to the coronavirus threat. Others, including Britain’s Boris Johnson, were equally laggard.

Each country now has higher death rates than they would have had they acted sooner. Epidemiologists say that if the US shutdown had taken place two weeks earlier, 90 per cent of the deaths would have been prevented. More than 30,000 Americans have now died, according to the official tally.

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Had no social distancing occurred at all, the US would have lost many times that by now. There is no excuse for running the same experiment again. 

Yet that is what Mr Trump is pushing to do. On Thursday (Apr 16), the White House published guidelines for the reopening of the US economy from May 1 — less than two weeks away. The worst-hit states on each coast will probably stick to their timetables.

US politics abhors a federal vacuum. States are clubbing together to fill it. But they will be subjected to increasingly urgent pressure to follow Mr Trump’s dictates, which are driven by politics, rather than science.

It was one thing to wake up late to the virus. It would be quite another to drift back into sleep too soon. 

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A FRAGMENTED RESPONSE

There is no point in fantasising which US presidents would have done better. The answer is almost any. You go to war with the president you have.

But it is easy to project Mr Trump’s direction. There will be no federal plan to marshal the US’s resources for testing, therapeutics or the search for a vaccine. The US will have to rely on its patchwork of labs, companies and philanthropists.

They are unrivalled but highly fragmented. As the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, put it: States should not have to compete with each other during a war for tanks and guns. 

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks in front of stacks of medical protective supplies
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks in front of stacks of medical protective supplies during a news conference in New York City, New York, Mar 24, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Mike Segar)

Nor will Mr Trump educate Americans about the reality ahead. In his view, the US is already past the peak. Failure to reopen the economy would cost more lives than keeping it closed, he says.

In fact, a new wave that triggered a second lockdown would be a far bigger hit to US wealth than a cautious return to work over a period of months.

READ: Commentary: Trump fights a two-front war on the coronavirus

One paper estimates the difference at US$5.2 trillion over 30 years. Economists and scientists mostly agree on this. Mr Trump is deaf to the consensus. 

Which means the US is likely to flunk the test that matters most — national purpose. No matter how sinuous their civic institutions, nations without leadership lose wars.

The US was galvanised into unity after the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor and the launch of Sputnik. COVID-19, by contrast, is spurring a hunt for scapegoats. The virus is only worsening America’s divide.

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Source: CNA/sl

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