The 3 phases of pandemic response in the United States, and why it keeps getting worse

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As the nation’s case count and death toll climbed, Trump continued to dither, to push the idea of “miracle cures,” and to continue ignoring the advice of medical experts, even when they were sharing the same stage. But, for a passing moment at least, the obvious threat of the virus, underlined by overrun hospitals and refrigerated morgue trucks, was so great that even Republican governors made at least a gesture at taking action. States like Texas, Florida, and Arizona really did have a period of stay-at-home orders. There was even a day when Sean Hannity claimed that “I have always taken the coronavirus seriously.”

But that attitude didn’t last. Those stay-at-home orders were barely in place before Trump began pushing for them to be lifted. Fox News and right-wing radio banded together to support gun-totting hoods who stormed state capitols demanding that governors “reopen,” even in states where the “closing” was little more than lip service. And, after a couple of weeks in which Republican governors saw that the growth of new cases seemed to be slowing, they eagerly joined the “reopen” chorus. In fact, they did so even in places where the growth of cases never slowed.

This second phase of the pandemic response both compounded the mistakes of the first phase and made it nearly impossible that the United States would have any outcome short of an even greater disaster. Because governor after governor—and I’m looking at you, Ron DeSantis, and Greg Abbott, and Mike Parsons—treated the slow-down in cases as if it were completely unconnected from the lockdown period. 

Experts had urged the stay-at-home orders expressly because they would help to break the transmission chain of COVID-19 and generate a reduction in cases, allowing time for development of treatment and vaccines. However, in the United States, as soon as that reduction in the transmission rate arrived, Republicans seemed to forget why it had happened in the first place. That allowed people like DeSantis to make speeches about how everything was going better than predicted while utterly ignoring the fact that they were only days past the end of lockdown.

In this phase of unwarranted and overwhelming complacency, Republicans pushed opening, and opening more, and opening more, without even bothering to see the results of their last action. From malls to tattoo artists, restaurants to summer camps, red-state governors opened them all, tossing more logs onto the pandemic fire even before the last one had started to burn.

When the decline in cases predictably reversed, the nation entered Phase 3 of this event: Pure murder. Not only was the increase in cases perfectly predictable—it was predicted. And still Republicans are seeking to blame everything, and everyone, for the results of this outcome other than their own actions. The epitome of this might be Mike Pence’s repeated finger-pointing toward “young people” getting together without practicing social distancing or wearing a mask … while ignoring social distancing and not wearing a mask. Worse still, Republicans across the board—in the White House, in Congress, and in the media—have turned the two actions that we know can slow the rate of spread into “political statements.”

As Auric Goldfinger once quipped to James Bond: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.” The failures of both federal and state level responses in the initial phase of the pandemic were both horrific and unnecessary, but they were also almost the expected outcomes from a party that had spent not just Trump’s time in office, but decades upholding the value of “gut” above facts. Having made knowledge into an enemy, the nation dined out on ignorance to the tune of 100,000 dead.

The actions during Phase 2—as governors reopened their states in the face of not only further warnings, but with complete disregard for the guidelines coming from within the government itself—were worse. It wasn’t just that in this period the opportunity for genuine relief was squandered, but that it also became clear that state governors had once more placed the concerns of keeping Donald Trump and Fox News pleased far ahead of the health and safety of their citizens.

The current phase of the pandemic is simply murder. Not just the unnecessary sacrifice of lives and health, but the destruction of jobs and economic security, by championing ego over everything. COVID-19 is, and always was, a deadly disease, the health effects of which will leave a generational ripple in the form of a number of disabled that greatly exceeds the appalling number of deaths. The economic and diplomatic effects could well be a black swan event for America in the sense of derailing the nation and removing any concept of the U.S. as a “world leader” in any form other than the awful. Rather than being concerned about how he can get contract-killing Russians back into the G7, Trump would be better served finding reasons why the United States should not be heaved out

The United States entered into this disaster riding a wave of deliberate ignorance and disdain for expertise. At every step, Republicans haven’t just made things worse by attacking any attempt into take logical action—the latest phase of this response compounds the previous errors by refusing to even recognize cause and effect. 

Rather than thoughts and prayers, the nation needs reasoning and rational action. But if that phase is going to come, someone else will have to deliver it.

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