And yet, the pandemic is not impossible to control, contrary to what White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows recently suggested. Many other nations have successfully controlled it, some more than once. Masks can stop people from transmitting the virus. Shutting down nonessential indoor venues and improving ventilation can limit the number of super-spreading events. Rapid tests and contact tracing can identify clusters of infection, which can be contained if people have the space and financial security to isolate themselves. Social interventions such as paid sick leave can give vulnerable people the option of protecting their lives without risking their livelihoods.
The playbook is clear, but it demands something that has thus far been missing—federal coordination. Only the federal government can fund and orchestrate public-health measures at a scale necessary to corral the coronavirus. But Trump has abdicated responsibility, leaving states to fend for themselves. In May, I asked several health experts whether governors and mayors could hold the line on their own. Most were doubtful, and the ensuing months have substantiated their fears.
There are three small mercies that Americans can be thankful for. First, COVID-19 is a starter pandemic, and SARS-CoV-2 is neither as contagious nor as lethal as other pathogens. Second, it is the only major epidemic that Trump has faced during his presidency. (By contrast, Barack Obama dealt with the H1N1 flu and MERS in his first term, and Ebola and Zika in his second.) Third, it occurred not during the dawn of his term but at its twilight, when Americans have an opportunity to avert further incompetence.
Whatever the outcome of the election, the coming winter will be difficult. And whoever occupies the White House on January 21 will probably have to deal with another major epidemic before his term is over. With luck, that event won’t begin until the COVID-19 threat has subsided, but overlapping outbreaks are also possible. We do not know how Joe Biden would fare, and if he is elected, the U.S. will still be riddled with systemic weaknesses and inequities that another pathogen could also exploit. But we do know exactly how Trump will react to the next crisis. The U.S. is trapped in a pandemic spiral, and so is Donald Trump.
Science values replication—repeated experiments that verify whether the same outcome occurs. But in this case, that work is unnecessary. The U.S. has now clearly seen what happens when a pandemic occurs under Trump. It is an experiment that no one should ever want to rerun.
Listen to Ed Yong discuss this story on an episode of Social Distance, The Atlantic’s guide to the pandemic:
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