March 26 marked an unhappy milestone for the United States: We’re now No. 1 in confirmed coronavirus cases.
China, where the novel coronavirus originated, was the previous leader. The country reported 81,782 cases as of Thursday near 6 pm on the coronavirus case counter by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. Until now, second place was held by Italy, which has reported 80,589 cases.
Now the US leapfrogged them both with 82,404 cases. And it’s only going to get worse from here.
In late February, there were 80,000 cases in China and nascent outbreaks in Japan, South Korea, Iran, and Italy. But things in the US were still looking pretty good — at least, on the surface. The US on February 20 reported only 15 cases, all travel-related.
But once officials started testing in earnest for Covid-19, the cases started coming — and coming and coming. On March 1, there were 75. On March 7, 435. On March 14, 2,770. On March 21, 24,192. Now it’s at 82,404 — and those numbers are only going to go up in the coming weeks.
How did things go so wrong so fast? Much of the answer is that when we were reporting very few cases, things were already getting bad under the radar. A disastrously mismanaged February, during which government officials, much of the media, and even some experts assured Americans there was nothing to fear, let the virus spread until it was too big to ignore. By that time, it was also too big to stop without heavy-handed social distancing measures — and their attendant catastrophic economic costs.
Much of the blame lies with the president, who stripped public health agencies of the staffing, resources, and authority they needed to function, and then addressed the crisis in his usual fashion: with misinformation and bluster. It’s worked well for him against many of the scandals of his administration, but the virus was unimpressed.
But the failure wasn’t just the president’s. As Zeynep Tufekci, who has been urging us to do more for months, put it, “a soothing message got widespread traction, not just with Donald Trump and his audience, but among traditional media in the United States, which exhorted us to worry about the flu instead, and warned us against overreaction.” Even with the government sleeping on the job, there were signs from other countries that a catastrophe was arriving on our shores. But very few people said it out loud, and the ones who did were assured they were overreacting. Most people took public health experts’ reassurances at face value and assumed the low numbers of reported cases reflected reality.
Meanwhile, the virus spread.
Now, the world’s most powerful country has one of the world’s worst disasters on its hands. The question now is: Is it too late to turn things around?