Sep 2, 2020 - Health

America's botched coronavirus response foretells a dark future

Illustration of coronavirus in the shape of an ignited bomb

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

America's failures in handling the coronavirus pandemic bode ill for our ability to deal with climate change and other threats that loom on the horizon.

Why it matters: America's ongoing struggles with the coronavirus have caused tremendous human and economic pain. But what should worry us for future disasters that could be far worse is the way the pandemic has exposed deep political divisions and a disinformation ecosystem that muddies even the hardest facts.

What's happening: Despite more than 180,000 deaths from COVID-19, the U.S. remains fatally divided over how to deal with a pandemic that will surely last for months more, if not longer.

  • Rampant misinformation — and deliberate disinformation — has eroded public support even for fairly obvious steps to control the outbreak.
  • That includes a willingness to accept a COVID-19 vaccine when one becomes ready — a recent Axios-Ipsos survey found fewer than half of Americans would take a first-generation vaccine.
  • 60% of Americans polled in the latest installment of that survey think the federal government's response is making the pandemic worse.
  • "But there is a stark partisan divide: 74% of Republicans say the federal government is making things better, while 80% of Democrats say the federal government is making things worse," Axios' Sam Baker writes.

While much of the criticism of the U.S. response to COVID-19 has been directed at the White House, along with the lack of a clear national plan to deal with the outbreak, many states run by Democrats have also struggled to handle the pandemic.

  • New York City, where I live, has suffered more than 238,000 cases and more than 23,000 deaths, meaning that at least 1 in every 365 people in America's biggest city have been killed by the disease.

The experience of the pandemic should set off alarm bells about how ready — or not — the U.S. is to deal with future threats.

  • The next pandemic — whether natural or human-made — could be far worse than COVID-19, as a tabletop exercise put on by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in 2019 projected. 65 million people globally died in that fictional outbreak.
  • Unlike the COVID-19 pandemic, which presents itself as a present threat, climate change is far more slow-moving, yet no less devastating over time. If we struggle to handle a threat that we can watch killing us, it will be that much more difficult to stop one that can feel invisible.
  • Unforeseen catastrophic threats — call them "x-risks" — lay before us. We don't know what they might be, but handling them will require the ability to create political unity, which the coronavirus has shown is lacking.

The biggest danger comes down to misinformation and the ease with which it now spreads around the country.

The bottom line: As bad as these last several months have been, it'd be foolish to assume that COVID-19 is the worst the future could throw at us.

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