150,000 deaths. Why? Now what?

As the United States passes another grave milestone, WSS staffer Sachiko Goto ’23 asks: How did we get here? And how can we make sure to not pass another one in the future?

150,000. As of July 29, 2020, that is the amount of Americans who have lost their lives due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It has only been 55 days since 100,000 Americans lost their lives to the virus. In just 55 days, 50,000 deaths could have been prevented in this country, but weren’t. 

There are now so many people dying in the U.S. that mass burials are occurring in New York. The U.S. death toll alone now makes up a little over ⅕ of the world death toll. Unemployment rates rose at alarming rates, and many across the country are having to wait for hours at food banks, all because of a virus spreading uncontrollably in a country that used to be a global role model.

So what went wrong? Why did the United States, the land of the free and the home of the brave, fail to control a pandemic and let it kill so many of its citizens?

The short, simple answer to that question would be that this nation has been unable to unite against a single, common enemy. This happened because of a series of events, and failures, that have taken place since the very beginning of the pandemic.

Why did the United States, the land of the free and the home of the brave, fail to control a pandemic and let it kill so many of its citizens?”

— Sachiko Goto '23

U.S. officials in the Centers of Disease Control were first notified of a mysterious outbreak in Wuhan, China, on December 31, 2019. By the next day, the CDC began developing reports about this outbreak for the Department of Health and Human Services. On January 3, Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, got a call from a Chinese official who told him that a mysterious illness was spreading in the city of Wuhan, confirming the information that was given to the CDC days earlier. During this period in early January, Chinese officials were withholding accurate information about the outbreak, claiming that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” While HHS officials knew that China had a history of withholding information to avoid national and international embarrassment, they were still split on whether to take any action to prevent a possible outbreak on U.S. soil or not, including whether or not to enforce the Defense Production Act to create new medical equipment. Nothing happened for weeks despite the threat because of this divide.

Eventually, this split over whether to take any action or not would affect the White House response to COVID-19. President Trump, who was in the midst of his impeachment battle, was preoccupied with his upcoming trial in the senate, and didn’t seem to think the virus was a serious threat. Even when he was briefed on the topic by Alex Azar, the secretary of HHS, he believed Azar was being an “alarmist” and went on to talk about the HHS handling of his administration’s vaping ban. This sentiment that responding to an outbreak in China was “alarmist” was echoed by many in the administration, who believed that taking drastic action to a threat with many unknowns would be an overreaction, leading to a delay in any type of action, including stockpiling on medical equipment and protective gear. The administration eventually did order 10,000 ventilators in late March, but many wouldn’t come until the summer or fall, and an administration official involved described the purchase as “kind of a joke.”

This thinking that putting large sums of people, money and resources into preparing for a possible outbreak in the U.S. was going to be “alarmist” or an “overreaction” may have been the biggest, most haunting mistake the government made.”

— Sachiko Goto '23

This thinking that putting large sums of people, money and resources into preparing for a possible outbreak in the U.S. was going to be “alarmist” or an “overreaction” may have been the biggest, most haunting mistake the government made. Looking back at the decisions that were made by the federal government during the early stages of this pandemic, they all seem to be centered around the same philosophy: the U.S. will be fine, we don’t need to worry so much, it will go away. China initially claimed that there is “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission,” but they have a history of hiding information and understating risks. Should the U.S. be worried, and prepare for the worst? No, it’s too early for that. Does the CDC need more assistance in creating an effective testing kit? No, they can handle it by themselves. We created a coronavirus task force, should they prioritize preparing the U.S. for an outbreak? No, the U.S. will be fine, let’s get all Americans out of China and Europe, then focus on border control. Those decisions not only created new problems, they made existing problems even worse. The CDC was originally launched to contain a malaria outbreak in the southern U.S. during the 1940s; they were never built to mass-produce tests for a disease like COVID-19. And yet the CDC was still the only one tasked with creating testing kits, and now we know this led to ineffective tests being sent to labs across the country, and top experts not having reliable information about how far the virus has spread.

What makes these decisions even more appalling is the fact that the administration was making them while pushing for a quick reopening and recovery of the economy. One of president Trump’s reelection strategies has been to praise the growing economy, and attributing that growth to his policies. His public persona as a highly successful New York developer and master dealmaker who gets things done is one of the major factors that led him to the White House, and it makes perfect sense that he would want the economy to do well during an election year. What does not make sense is the way he is dismissing the COVID-19 pandemic and pushing for states to reopen before they have flattened the curve, without doing much to control the pandemic. Many of the world’s economists including Jerome Powell, the chair of the Federal Reserve, agree the economic outlook depends on the virus. This means a quick economic recovery depends on a quick, effective response to the pandemic. And if president Trump wants to keep touting his economy to win reelection, it would be the best strategy for him to put in all of the resources he can into preventing further spread of the virus. But instead, his administration has pushed for reopening even while cases and deaths are rising everyday, and has dismissed the severity of the virus repeatedly while taking no responsibility for the rising death toll in America.

So if the government cannot be relied on to get the country through the pandemic, then who can we rely on?

It is increasingly looking like the answer is going to be ourselves. With a president who is actively spreading conspiracy theories about the virus and referring to it using racist terms, and White House staff who do not stop the president from spreading these falsehoods whether they agree with his opinions or not, the public needs to step up and do its part. Take part in social distancing. Stay informed using reliable sources, and try to filter out conspiracy theories. And if there is a loved one who believes falsehoods about COVID-19, help them out by giving them the right information they need. They might not believe the CDC or the media, but they might trust their own family a little more. 

Take part in social distancing. Stay informed using reliable sources, and try to filter out conspiracy theories. And if there is a loved one who believes falsehoods about COVID-19, help them out by giving them the right information they need.”

— Sachiko Goto '23

And while it is still controversial, wearing a mask is also very effective in stopping the spread of COVID-19. We know that masks help limit asymptomatic people from transmitting the disease to others, and recent research also suggests that wearing a mask also protects the wearer from contracting illness as well. A study published in April of this year modeled what the effects might be if more people in the public wore face masks, and they concluded that in the state of New York, if a significant portion of their population wore moderate masks it would prevent 17-45% of projected deaths in that state. 

But that same study also gives a warning that seems to be directed right at America: if people take too long to wear masks in large numbers, the mask will lose its efficiency. If we do not want more people in this country to die of COVID-19, the public needs to do its part right now, before it’s too late. Denying its existence will only lead to more tragedy, and refusing to do our part to protect ourselves and those around us will have irreversible effects.