We Did It, Kids: How Americans Epically Failed to Contain Coronavirus
Right now, things aren’t looking good for America. Bluntly, they‘re about to get really, truly bad. We have over 2.6 million confirmed cases of coronavirus, accounting for 1/5 of the confirmed cases globally. And we have nearly 130,000 Americans dead, though that number is certainly higher due to chronic under-reporting of virus related deaths.
Recently, Trump administration bought over 500,000 doses of Remdesivir, though the money might be better spent on scientifically proven measures used to fight the virus, like masks and contact tracing. After all, multiple studies have confirmed the drug has not been shown to be efficacious. However, maybe Trump is banking on profiting off of the cost of anti-viral drug, which is estimated to be $3,100 per ineffective treatment.
And now, Americans are no longer allowed to travel to Europe as cases have spiked across states to all-time highs due to prematurely reopening. Without central leadership, governors and mayors have been left to their own (and often distinctly unscientific) devices on how to contain the spread, assuming it’s even still containable.
But how did we get to such a dire point? In late December 2019, the coronavirus wasn’t even a blip on America’s horizon. A statement published by the World Health Organization (W.H.O) on December 31, 2019 mentioned that healthcare workers in the Wuhan province were investigating an outbreak of 27 cases of pneumonia. Only days later Chinese officials corrected the publication, stating the outbreak was caused by a novel, once zoonotic virus, thought to have originated in a wet market. It was dubbed corona (2019-nCoV).
At the start of the new year that news trickled to America. People had heard about the virus, had joked about it, and had even cautiously worried about it, but there was nothing in American leadership to make them consider it might be a threat to their day to day lives or, you know, their actual lives.
Because the next few couple of weeks were when Americans had time to prepare…and didn’t. More importantly, this was the critical period when our government should have been preparing for the virus to hit. But instead of having federal leadership or state leadership to step in, the virus was downplayed to an embarrassing extent. As a result, travel and business continued as usual. At this time, the virus must have been spreading. There’s no evidence to suggest it hadn’t already gone global.
Once again, I want to stress that we had ample time to prepare for the inevitable. The first coronavirus case on America soil was identified on January 20, 2020, almost sixty days before states began to declare shelter in place. Six days earlier, the W.H.O had asked a team of researchers in Berlin to produce a diagnostic test for the virus, based off data from Wuhan.
By the end of January, there were 5,997 confirmed cases in China with that number considered to be widely under reported. 68 cases had popped up in other countries highlighting just how transmissible the virus was. In contrast, during the 2003 SARS outbreak which lasted from November 2002 to July 2003, a total of 8,098 cases were confirmed. That means this new virus, corona, was a serious threat. In 1/8 of the time SARS had to spread, corona managed to rank up 3/4 of total SARS cases. And yet the American government still wasn’t taking it seriously.
By mid-February, the drama of the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship where corona went viral, reached America. Perhaps this represented the first public display of how shockingly transmissible and dangerous the virus was-with rumors of stranded passengers catching the disease through air vents-trending across social media. Still, in America, life went on. In hindsight, that was for the worse.
Yet come March 19th, New York City had gone into lock-down with over a hundred cases traced to a lawyer, Lawrence Garbuz, who was subsequently deemed “Patient X”. At the same time, reality hadn’t really hit. Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo engaged in political debate, each deriding the severity of the virus while trying to one-up the other, while citizens blundered about, unsure how dangerous the threat was.
This was one of the many failures of action of New York politicians to contain the virus; a failure of action that would later be extended to most of American’s politicians.
At the same time, Seattle began to experience multiple cases of coronavirus. When Seattle based Dr. Frank Riedo heard that a patient with breathing symptoms that had been impaired had recently returned from Wuhan, China, he began to email colleagues in a circle that included politicians and health experts that an epidemic already had begun. He suggested that severe measures be taken immediately.
And Seattle (shockingly) listened, letting science led the way and, thus, managed to flatten the curve accordingly. Now what this means, guys, was at this point the virus was containable! But few states were willing to follow this example and none quickly enough to contain the virus.
On the East coast, business commenced as usual for an extra week while Seattle fell into lockdown mode. “It’s just the flu”, people claimed even though, while accounting for imperfect tracing and testing, Johns Hopkins University estimated that the death rate during normal flu season is only .01%, and the death rate of coronavirus patients is anywhere from 3% to 6%: astronomically higher of a death rate than the flu. Obviously, to the sane mind, the coronavirus is nothing like the flu with the continued comparison being a dangerous false equivalency.
Yet this false swansong rang through states throughout America as the virus was overlooked and underplayed by an incompetent administration, headed by a a man who politicized and personalized the virus at a time when he should have been unifying states to survive it.
As of July 2020, America has utterly failed in containing corona. That failure can be traced to a myriad of reasons, which Americans are paying for by losing their jobs, their homes, and their lives.
Take New Zealand, a country who is currently cautiously reopening, with zero active corona cases. New Zealand recognized the extent of the virus early on enforcing a nationwide local down (instead of America’s idiotic playing containing the virus state by state), with restrictions like no going out except for food or medicine. Instead of playing down the virus, they used worst case scenarios to show people how bad it could get. And the whole time, New Zealand’s amazing Prime Minister pushed the idea that the country was a group who had to come together to fight the virus. In contrast, America did none of this.
And now, cases are spiking by shocking degrees by states in the USA. To fully appreciate the severity of these spikes, look at the state of Florida. By the end of April, it had about 30,000 new cases. But in a single week, by the beginning of July, those cases have risen to about 45,000 or 150% more. Again, that’s over the course of a week. And please don’t diminish this by citing increases in testing or contact tracing. That is an insane spike in a vastly incredibly contained time frame which is completely “on-brand” for corona.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news but at this point, the failure of our government, our population, and our corporations to curb the spread of the virus is obvious. The selfishness of Americans, who protested with moronic signs proclaiming, “I want my hair done”, was a clear indicator of their inability to sacrifice a few weeks or months of normalcy to prevent an unending cycle of spikes and spread.
Let’s look at where we are now. The above is a graph that shows the top cases by state as of the beginning of July. As you can see from the middle columns in the graph, which represent cases identified in a single week, states that were not caught in the first wave (such as New York City which I realize is not a state), are now experiencing dramatic spikes in coronavirus. Take Texas, which has over 62% more identified cases in the past seven days then it did through all of March and April.
So, how did we, America, fail so horribly that our battle against coronavirus leaves us trailing behind third world countries in both the number of identified cases and the death rates? How are we comparable to countries like Brazil and Iran, which suffer from fractured healthcare system, lack of funding, and internal strife?
First off, as mentioned, America made sure the pandemic was politicized from the start, polarizing the reactions of the average American to the virus. Let’s break down how crazy doing so actually is.
In the time where other countries coalesced against the greater enemy: a microscopic virus, America acted as a country divided. Faced with pending lock-downs and, no pun intended, face masks, Americans refused to self-sacrifice. Incomprehensibly, right wing cartoonists published ill-conceived drawings that incorrectly distinguished between “safety” and “freedom”, as if the two need to be mutually exclusive. Suddenly, science and reason became a public enemy and a threat for the reelection of our pathetic administration. Afterall, Trump took the virus as a personal affront and a political attack. And, like mindless lemmings, so did his supporters.
For instance, when Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer decided to close parts of Michigan to try to keep a lid on the coronavirus pandemic, Trump took to Twitter, calling to “Liberate Michigan”, among other states. Literally white men with guns stormed buildings in protest of their “freedom” against novel virus strain 2019-nCoV. Do you realize how crazy that is?
The issue here is the administration’s horrific lack of foresight. Of course, the restrictions brought by the pandemic would bring unemployment and unease. But, had this been done systemically in full force, we would have followed countries like New Zealand and South Korea, with cases falling. Instead, gradually forcing reopening by state before the virus had completely died out in one order to secure re-election became the zenith of foolishness and shortsightedness.
In fact, Trump and his administration have prepared so poorly for the pandemic that countries such as Taiwan and Russia have sent us, supposedly the world’s wealthiest nation, supplies to help out.
And after the CDC allegedly lied about the efficacy of face-masks to preserve the existing ones for healthcare workers, more faith in leadership was shot and the average citizen became more and more confused about which protocol to follow. In contrast, other countries, like Singapore, New Zealand, Italy, and Israel, laid out clear and transparent guidelines from top down, gaining the faith and corporation of citizens.
In the past few weeks, the number of coronavirus cases has doubled to tripled in most states. For those of you still holding onto that “but it’s just because we only started testing that we can tell there are more cases and it’s been like this all along”, no, it’s not. It’s because this pandemic has now become full-blown or, as my doctor parents would say, gone viral.
Before the pandemic even finished the first wave in states like Texas, Florida, and North Carolina, governors were already allowing businesses to reopen, by phase. They were more enslaved to the demands of a capitalist system than the demands of an unthinking virus. Our right-wing government cited the unfair “draconian” measures imposed by China when trying to contain the virus, conveniently forgetting that a virus is not political and must be contained by any costs possible.
We’ve looked at New Zealand. Now, let’s look at Taiwan. With a population pushing 24 million, due to strong leadership from the top down that fostered contract tracing and rapid testing-two key strengths that have shown empirical success in fighting back against the pandemic-Taiwan had just 7 Corona related deaths.
In contrast, testing was never made mandatory in the United States and contract tracing never went behind being a pipe dream. Now, even if both were implemented across all 50 states, it’s possible that we’ve lost control of the virus enough for containment measures to no longer matter.
After all, when you think of a pandemic, one of the most critical phases is the rapid containment strategy before virus becomes widespread. The United States, with a president more content to Tweet his displeasure (and golf) than provide top down leadership, never bothered to try to holistically contain the virus. Moreover, our president downplayed the virus, joked about it, politicized it, and made it about race, leading us to the terrible position we are in now: a position I do not believe we can recover from.
Even accounting for various factors, like inconsistent or inaccurate testing, you can see how the United States surged ahead of countries that were hit, initially, hardest by the virus, like Italy and China. In fact, we now have nearly 700% more cases than the former.
After other countries imposed harsh containment methods (which did not include entertaining 50% filled capacity restaurants or half empty movie theaters, looking at you, AMC Loews), look at the following graph:
We are still leading, but now by an insane degree. In under six weeks, the US managed to lead the world’s active coronavirus cases and deaths and remain statistically comparable to the third world country Brazil in overall growth, despite having multitudes of available resources. Now, don’t get me wrong. Cases are still growing in other countries. But within 6 weeks, the rate of cases in Spain grew by 153%. In America, cases exploded by 357%.
The striking thing about the comparison between the two graphs is that the growth of cases within the US is not slowing down. In fact, as shown in the first graph, in traditionally Republican states, like Texas and Florida, cases are growing at an exponential rate. In less than six weeks, the number of confirmed cases has gone up by two million. And, guys, that’s not f***ing good.
Think about it. For a first world country, with the resources we have, that is crazy. It’s the sign of a system gone, somehow, horribly haywire. To go from 700,000 confirmed cases (rounding down) to almost 3,000,000 (rounding up) within the “greatest country in the world” in weeks, there’s obviously an enormous failure to communicate and “flatten the curve”, so to speak. At this point, looking back at the number of cases traced to that single “Patient X” in New York City, I can’t imagine a way to curb the spread of the virus.
So, let’s take a step back. Have you ever read the fable “One Grain of Rice”? In short, it’s about a young girl who returns a grain of spilled rice to a selfish king. As a reward, the king offers the girl a prize for her honesty. Originally, she asks for only what she returned (or some variation) but the amused king prods the girl to ask for more than a single grain as a reward. So, she does. She asks for double the amount of a single grain, cumulatively, for thirty sequential days. What follows is an exponential growth factor that quickly succeeds the fabled kings’ expectations (and our own).
While the above story is a heroic triumph for our fairy tale protagonist, the same logic is going to destroy America. This virus is now out of control. It was, at one point, stoppable but because there are so many selfish, racist, and, frankly, ignorant people in this country, unless draconian measures are taken-and we all know they won’t be-we will never be able to curb this exponential, out of control growth.
Now, if there is effective social distancing in place, meant to “flatten the curve”, the growth rate of the virus drops 5.4 percentage points in the first five days up to 9.1 percentage points by twenty days. So, social distancing obviously can cut down on exponential growth, but it needs to be practiced.
So, let’s look at some information from the WHO. To control a pandemic, the R0 (otherwise known as the basic reproduction number) needs to remain below 1. Right now, health officials believe the R0 of coronavirus hovers between 1.4 to 1.5 or up to 2 to 3. To break it down, that means that with a R0 of 2, for every person infected, we can expect 2 more infected people if drastic measures aren’t taken (you know, like the ones American politicians refuse to implement and American citizens refuse to abide by).
We’ll now revisit the data from the first graph of states that have been re-opening by various degrees. Now, if you look at my admittedly imperfect graph below, I’ve taken a range of R0 numbers that might apply to coronavirus, including a very conservative R0 of 1.2.
As you can see, depending on how transmissible the disease is, if we look at every new infected person within the past week as someone who doesn’t care enough to social distance (or who’s had the misfortune enough to come across someone who doesn’t care or had an essential job), we can also assume that person was in quarters with other people (because they had to get the virus from somewhere) and has already infected others.
So, for a state like Texas, where we are seeing some of the worst spikes, the past week’s new cases (45,105) could balloon to 54,126 new cases (if we assume an R0 of 1.2) or a mind-blowing 135,315 new cases (if we assume an R0 of 3). Again, this projection looks at a time frame of a single week and this is assuming there aren’t any super spreaders (to remove outliers), like the stories we are hear about when a single hairdresser is linked to 90 new cases.
So, as of writing this, with the parents of friends’ dead, with the siblings of friends dead, with classmates dead, and with my some of my loved ones dead, it feels like game over. Baring some lightening rod from leadership-a call to action we have not seen through nearly four years of presidency, it doesn’t seem likely that the virus will plateau. Contagion is at an all-time high, despite the efforts of March, April, May, and June, to contain the virus. The failure here was one to come together and to self-sacrifice, if not for ourselves, if for our fellow man (or woman).
And I’m not sure what this new spike means-hope springs eternal, after all-but I can’t think it will bode well for anything from our daily lives to the job market to the overall framework of the economy. Unfortunately, Americans might have very well failed more than anyone in the world at containing this pandemic and now we might be forced to live through the after effects of our failures: one where the omnipresent threat of death and illness becomes an ever present but unfortunate part of our everyday life, like swiping an Metro-card only to find it unfilled or being caught without an umbrella during a sudden downfall of rain.