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American exceptionalism strikes out

Aug 31,2020 - Last updated at Aug 31,2020

BERKELEY — Once again, the United States is standing out as a world leader, but not for any reason anyone would want to emulate. In most of the Global North, the daily COVID-19 infection rate is down to around one per 5,000 people. When new cases do emerge, the bulk of them are caught quickly by testing, and then contained through contact tracing and quarantines. Thanks to these protocols, many countries have driven the COVID-19 reproduction rate below one, at which point the virus would eventually die out for a lack of new hosts to infect.

Moreover, across Europe, Asia and many other parts of the world, most people recognise the need for social distancing and face masks, and do not see these precautions as an assault on their “freedom”. In places where compliance with such commonsense measures is the norm, there is every reason to expect that the COVID-19 death rate can be kept below one per 1,000 people, which is roughly one-tenth the death toll of the “Spanish influenza” epidemic at the end of World War I.

There also is every reason to anticipate a relatively quick economic rebound, provided that governments remember that the market was made by and for people, not vice versa. After addressing the public-health emergency, returning the economy to full employment should be the top priority, and it must not be sacrificed on the altar of austerity and financial orthodoxy.

Meanwhile, the trajectory of the pandemic in the Global South remains perilous. Earlier in the crisis, many feared that the spread of the coronavirus in Singapore’s migrant-worker neighbourhoods augured a catastrophe orders of magnitude greater than in the Global North. So far, those fears have not been borne out. But with limited public-health resources to fight the virus, and very little fiscal capacity to cushion the economic blow, the future for most developing countries remains grim. Without substantial assistance, highly indebted countries, in particular, will soon have no choice but to reopen the economy even with the virus uncontained.

That brings us to the US, where the coronavirus is now completely out of control. Since mid-June, new daily cases have more than doubled nationwide, to 145 per million people. And, no, this upsurge is not merely a product of increased testing, as President Donald Trump has claimed. If that were the case, the proportion of positive tests would be decreasing. Yet, in the past three weeks, it has risen from one in 22 to one in 13. Arizona’s rate of new confirmed cases is already as high as New York’s was at its peak. And, according to a Financial Times analysis, Florida is around one week behind Arizona, and Texas is following Florida by about three days.

For optimists, the last ray of hope lies in the possibility that this Sunbelt outbreak is concentrated among the young and relatively healthy, and that it will not break through to the elderly and other vulnerable segments of the population. But, given that many of these states’ residents have made a political point out of rejecting social-distancing and mask-wearing protocols, containment is becoming increasingly unlikely. Echoing Trump, pandemic deniers believe that if only public-health professionals would stop testing so much, and if only the press would stop covering the issue so much, fears would subside and the economy would boom again. The disease, they assume, would be no worse than a bad flu season.

This grasping at straws could succeed. The world is a surprising place, and medical therapies for treating COVID-19 patients are quickly improving. If the bulk of the deaths can be hidden from society’s gaze, concentrated among elderly people with fewer social connections outside their immediate families, surely the rest of us could get back to our lives. After all, Americans barely bat an eye at 40,000 gun-related deaths and 40,000 deaths from car crashes every year. If the COVID-19 fatality rate can be pushed down from 1 per cent to 0.5 per cent by shielding the vulnerable, and then from 0.5 per cent to 0.25 per cent with forthcoming antiviral therapies, attaining the estimated 60 per cent antibody rate needed to generate herd immunity would cost the US only 500,000 more lives. That might be doable within eight months, with only 2,000 lives lost per day.


Since 1776, when Thomas Jefferson put quill to paper to articulate the country’s foundational principles, the US has fallen short of its ideals. But in the 1860s, it spent the lives of almost 400,000 young men to eliminate the abomination of slavery, and for the past century it has served — for the most part — as a positive model for other countries to emulate.

After COVID-19 is finished with the US, there is little reason to think that this will still be true. The pandemic has confirmed the truth of American exceptionalism. But now America stands out as a global example of what other countries should avoid.


J. Bradford DeLong, a former deputy assistant US Treasury secretary, is professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.

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