America's rugged individualism is an Achilles' Heel when it comes to saving lives in a pandemic.

The past four months of the Covid-19 pandemic have put the rugged individualism at the foundation of American culture to the test. 

Americans famously don’t like to be told what to do, so when the viral disease began to spread across the US in March, and government imposed restrictions by closing schools and businesses, a defiant chorus of ridicule predictably erupted. Those who obsessed about the threat were chided for reactionary behavior and accused of surrendering to hysteria.

By the end of the month, however, Americans saw the mayhem unfolding in Italy and Spain. The theoretical “flatten the curve” graphics displayed ad nauseum started to have dates and numbers attached to them, and suddenly the threat of the pandemic became very real, very fast. 

Sober accounting replaced the dismissive attitude that prevailed earlier, and even sceptics began to comply with the imposed restrictions.

The measures worked and the pandemic slowed. By mid-April, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IMHE) model used by the White House predicted a dramatically reduced US death toll in the range of only 65,000-75,000, about 80-90 percent of which would have occurred by early May. 

A few weeks of staying home evidently sufficed, concluded the average person. Consequently, spirits lifted and behavior began to revert to the status quo ante Covid: “Maybe it’s just like a bad flu season after all.”

With this change in behavior came an inevitable reversal of fortune. We are now at the end of June and the US will soon surpass 125,000 deaths. Americans will most likely continue to die at the rate of more than 1,000 per day for weeks to come. IHME now predicts an ultimate death toll that will more than triple what it had foreseen two months ago. 

The trend of April that gave so much hope that the scale of the pandemic would not be so deadly for Americans after all has now almost seemed to reverse, as May was nearly as deadly as April. Tens of thousands more will die than otherwise would have.

To avoid this, we’d point to examples of a centralised bureaucracy successfully managing a pandemic response with testing and contact tracing, as Asian and European countries have done. 

Of course, that is much easier to accomplish in small countries like Slovenia, Switzerland, Austria, and Denmark - all of which are at the finishing line.

But the Trump Administration has made it clear that it will remain mostly hands off. There will be no federally managed testing initiative, and each of the 50 states has been left to its own devices in determining how to proceed.

Not surprisingly, the results are mixed. While some governors seem morally deficient in shrugging their shoulders at a higher death toll, others are almost sadistic in slowly revising in June the frustrating restrictions that were imposed in March. 

Europeans may find this inconsistency bizarre, but it epitomises the federal nature of American governance. Even the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution delegates everything to the People and to the States, unless it is specifically delineated elsewhere in the Constitution. Pandemic response is not.

Despite those fundamental precepts, however, a more cohesive Washington bureaucracy characterised by previous presidential administrations of either party might have managed to implement a more uniform national protocol to deal with the pandemic. 

But then again, had a hypothetical Hillary Clinton administration attempted to supersede the prerogatives of individual states with Republican-dominated governorships and legislatures, it would have been met with fierce resistance.

The grounded scientific guidance of Washington career epidemiologists like Dr Deborah Birx and Dr Anthony Fauci has been tolerated by Trump’s supporters because those technocrats stand beside the president as part of his team. 

Can we imagine the vitriolic attacks against their policies as devilish components of some Communist Chinese plot if they had stood beside Hillary? 

Picture the conspiracy theories that would have been peddled by Fox News or the calls by right-wing radio hosts to organise “lock her up” rallies in protest of social distancing guidelines. There is something quite sardonic in the thought that America’s compliance with pandemic protocols might actually be better under Trump than it would have been if he had lost the 2016 election.

Ultimately, defeating a pandemic comes down to prudent and compassionate individual behaviour as well as responsible community choices. That is why the more homogenous European countries performed so well, because those societies have a more tangible solidarity than the US does. 

By contrast, the rugged individualism of American culture, while an inspiration of many great achievements, is an Achilles' Heel when it comes to saving lives in a pandemic. This is especially true in light of today’s rancorously partisan American political climate that exploits divisions between citizens and turns every subject into an ideological battle above all else.

Americans love using language about saving lives and promoting safety to support aggressive interventions around the world. With great irony, their own simple inability to exercise self-control and cohesiveness has cost more lives in the past two months from Covid-19 than the country lost to terrorism and its colossal military engagements in the past two decades combined.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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