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How the Pandemic Defeated America: Ed Yong on How COVID-19 Humiliated Planet’s Most Powerful Nation

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As the world passes a grim milestone of 20 million coronavirus cases, we look at how the pandemic humbled and humiliated the world’s most powerful country. Over a quarter of the confirmed infections and deaths have been in the United States, which has less than 5% of the world’s population. Ed Yong, a science writer at The Atlantic who has been covering the pandemic extensively since March, says existing gaps in the U.S. social safety net and the Trump administration’s “devastatingly inept response” made for a deadly combination.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

The world has passed a grim milestone: 20 million coronavirus cases. Over 5 million of the confirmed infections are here in the United States. Although the U.S. has just 5% of the world’s population, it has more than a quarter, more than 25%, of all the coronavirus infections and deaths, with a death toll of over 163,000, by far the world’s largest. The United States has recorded more than half a million new cases so far in August. That’s more cases than any European country has recorded since the pandemic began.

This comes as millions of parents are now deciding whether it’s safe to send their kids back to school. A new report by the American Academy of Pediatrics found nearly 100,000 children contracted COVID-19 in just the last two weeks of July alone. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control reports children of color are disproportionately being hospitalized. Latinx kids are eight times more likely to be hospitalized than white children. Black children are five times as likely. Latinx and Black children also make up nearly three-quarters of the cases of the rare but deadly multisystem inflammatory syndrome, which has been associated with COVID-19.

We’re joined now by Ed Yong, science reporter at The Atlantic, his new article, “How the Pandemic Defeated America.” It’s the cover story of the new issue of The Atlantic.

Ed Yong begins his piece, “How did it come to this? A virus a thousand times smaller than a dust mote has humbled and humiliated the planet’s most powerful nation. America has failed to protect its people, leaving them with illness and financial ruin. It has lost its status as a global leader. It has careened between inaction and ineptitude. The breadth and magnitude of its errors are difficult, in the moment, to truly fathom.”

Ed Yong, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. OK, how did it happen? And how can it be fixed?

ED YONG: [inaudible] I wrote 8,000 words about it, but to try and summarize, I think there’s two main things we need to talk about. One is the devastatingly inept response to the pandemic over this year. The Trump administration has utterly failed the American people. It has failed to take the lead. It has failed to listen to experts. It has failed to roll out a workable plan to get testing in place, to steel the country, to ensure protective supplies are rolled out. It has failed in almost every conceivable way to deal with a pandemic that many other nations have brought to heel within a similar amount of time. And more importantly, I think it has failed to honor the sacrifices that Americans have made in spring, when everyone obeyed social restrictions, when they stayed at home, when they uprooted their lives at significant financial and emotional cost. That time was meant to be used to prepare the nation for what was to come, and it was squandered. So, that’s one aspect of it.

But I think the other that we really do need to grapple with is that the coronavirus exploited vulnerabilities that have been existing in American society for decades and centuries, well before the Trump administration. So, the underfunding of public health, the overpacked prisons, the understaffed nursing homes, the health inequalities that have been brewing for all of America’s history due to its legacy of colonialism and racism, all of those things contributed to how bad things are, the statistics that you read out at the start of this segment. And all of those vulnerabilities need to be addressed going forward, if we are going to be better able to deal with the pandemics of the future.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you — the Trump administration is clearly betting a lot on being able to have a vaccine as soon as possible. The president has actually talked about the possibility of November for a vaccine. But the reality is that even the clinical trial now underway, the Moderna trial, has only registered 5,000 of 30,000 volunteers that it needs to enroll in this clinical trial. This emphasis on the vaccine as the key solution, I’m wondering your thoughts on that.

ED YONG: Yeah. Even if everything goes right in the vaccine development process — and there’s no guarantee that will happen — even if we do get a vaccine ahead of schedule, then there are all kinds of problems left. There are logistical problems. How do you deliver that vaccine into people’s arms? Could we trust a government that has utterly failed to provide things like protective equipment or to roll out a workable national plan to handle the logistics of getting millions of vaccine doses to an adult population who is typically not the group that is usually vaccinated? Are we confident that a program called Operation Warp Speed, which has trumpeted speed more than anything else, will do all the necessary steps required to make people comfortable about the efficacy and safety of a vaccine? That public trust, which is so diminished right now, is really important. And I think that’s going to be a problem that people who are banking on the vaccine are not really fully grappling with.

And finally, I think you’re hinting at something really important, that we always — and by “we,” I mean society, in general, and, I think, the Trump administration, in particular, is banking on a biomedical silver bullets, things that are just going to — you know, a shot in the arm that is going to fix everything. And I don’t think it’s going to be that simple. Even when a vaccine comes out, as I said, it’s going to take a long time for it to actually get to people. And there are things we can do now, right now, that will make a difference. Testing is still so important. Social interventions, like giving people paid sick leave or ensuring wider healthcare coverage, all of those things can make a difference to people’s health in the moment, without having to wait for the biomedical enterprise to save us.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this whole issue of such a simple public health measure, like testing and tracking of those with positive results, why has there been such a colossal failure on the part of the U.S. government in dealing with the issue of testing?

ED YONG: It’s truly astonishing. I think, you know, at the start, some of the problems have been well documented. The CDC tried to roll out a test. It didn’t really work. Private labs tried to jump in and help out, but were strangled by FDA bureaucracy. And these problems rolled on and exacerbated, because the — because the U.S. fell behind in those early days, it then competed with basically the rest of the world for reagents and for swabs and all the equipment that you needed to test.

Why we are continuing to fail at testing is just utterly baffling. Many people have called for rapid diagnostic tests, that are a little less sensitive but can deliver results very, very quickly. That is incredibly important, because at the moment tests are taking weeks, you know, a week-plus, to return results, which is completely useless from the perspective of actually controlling the virus, working out where the pandemic is continuing to cause problems. We need a really coordinated testing plan. I think the real answer to your question, why this is still plaguing the country, is that there just has been no leadership. The logistical expertise to create a functioning testing plan across the country has not been marshaled. And that’s to the detriment of all of us.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, President Trump was questioned about his support for reopening in-person schools during the pandemic. This is what he said.

REPORTER: Ninety-seven thousand children tested positive for coronavirus in the last two weeks in July, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Does that give you any pause about —


REPORTER: — schools reopening for in-person learning?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No, because they may have, as you would call it, a case. It may be a case, but it’s also a case where there’s a tiny — it’s a tiny fraction of death. Tiny fraction. And they get better very quickly. Yeah, they have — they may have it for a short period of time, but, as you know, the — the seriousness of it, in terms of what it leads to, is — is extraordinarily small, very, very much less than 1%.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to ask you a multipart question on this, about misinformation and whether you think journalists should refuse to go to these daily coronavirus press briefings, unless President Trump has scientists at his side. Number two, this issue of the children, and particularly kids of color — Latinx kids eight times more likely to be hospitalized, Black children five times more likely, and 75% more chance of getting this multisystem disorder that can kill — how little these disparities are talked about, and do you think they weigh in to President Trump just disregarding them? By the way, his own kid won’t be going back in person to school, because their school is closed.

ED YONG: OK. So, to the first point, I don’t think that journalists should be airing these briefings live. I think they are among the most potent sources of misinformation and disinformation to the public right now. And, you know, maybe clips of them, along with the actual contextualizing information people need to make sense of it, but don’t ever, live. That just — yeah.

I think that in terms of your other question, the racial disparities, The Atlantic's Adam Serwer wrote a piece that Trump took the virus seriously, until he worked out who was actually dying from it. We see from reports from Katherine Eban from Vanity Fair that testing plans were — plans to control the pandemic were shelved when it became clear that it was disproportionately targeting blue states and minorities. You know, I think one should always stick to Hanlon's razor, assuming incompetence instead of malice, but there is increasing evidence that malice was part of this. And I think that is deeply worrying for what’s to come.

And you’ve read out statistics about the way the virus infects children, the lower relative risk of infection or death. That’s important, sure, but we need to remember that this is a pandemic which is still raging wildly throughout America. And the problem is that if you have an uncontrolled pandemic, not only do you have like massive community spread, which is a problem if you open schools in those communities, but rare events then become hugely problematic. If you have millions of people being infected, something that only happens to 1% of them is still going to affect huge swaths of the population. So the fact that something is relatively rare doesn’t make it safe in the context of a pandemic that is raging out of control, which is exactly what we are still seeing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ed Yong, I wanted to ask you — in your article for The Atlantic, “How the Pandemic Defeated America,” you also look into the role of social media platforms in spreading disinformation or misinformation to the American public. And you write, quote, “The same social-media platforms that sowed partisanship and misinformation during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa and the 2016 U.S. election became vectors for conspiracy theories during the 2020 pandemic.” Could you expound on that?

ED YONG: Yeah. We know that platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube spread misinformation more quickly than they do information. And that’s because they are governed by algorithms that are designed to keep users engaged, to keep their attention on the site. And they do that by feeding them content that veers towards extreme, veers towards being very polarized and that stokes heavy emotion, regardless of whether that content is true and whether it is dangerous or not. And these problems have been well recognized.

This is the core theme of my Atlantic piece, that all of our problems in this pandemic were predictable and preventable. People were talking about social media platforms acting as radicalization engines. And that is exactly what we’re seeing now. They spread misinformation, and they contribute to this vortex of fear and uncertainty in which people are trapped. So, we are all worried. We are all concerned for our families, our friends. And we fill that, we sate that worry, by looking for more information. But we are looking for that information on channels that feed us falsehoods, that feed us polarizing information. And so that just worsens the feelings of fear and anxiety, which cause us to seek out even more information, which worsens the problem. And it just — it spirals. That is exactly what we are seeing now in this pandemic, and it’s contributing to the problems that we’re experiencing.

AMY GOODMAN: When you talk about a nontechnical fix — I mean, in terms of, for example, a vaccine, that we have to focus on now what many countries have gotten under control, the coronavirus pandemic, through masks, through testing, in both cases, something — it’s not just that the president has not invoked the Defense Production Act to the level of just ensuring everyone has it. In many places, it’s getting far worse. But I wanted to go to the issue of Medicare for All, Ed. We’re moving into the Democratic National Convention next week. And the executive committee, writing the platform — Joe Biden has made it very clear he’s against Medicare for All — amazingly, in the latest vote on the platform, against Medicare for All. How significant do you think — and do you think this pandemic and its disparate effects on the population of this country, especially communities of color — do you think that Medicare for All would make an enormous difference, and how it’s possible that the opposing party is saying “absolutely not” at this point, when many polls show it is the most popular answer to the health crisis we have in this country?

ED YONG: Yeah. America’s system of employer-tied insurance, which is unique in the world, is undoubtedly contributing to the disparities that we are seeing. It disadvantages poor communities. It disadvantages communities of color, Black and Latinx communities, that have been disproportionately hit by this virus. And we know that those disparities and this system of healthcare inequity is a legacy of the racism that America has always struggled with. Since the end of the Civil War, throughout the Jim Crow era, healthcare access was pushed away from Black communities and other communities of color. And that goes right up to the opposition to the expansion of Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. And that has led to continuing gulfs in people being able to access healthcare, that is contributing to the disproportionate toll that this virus has taken upon communities of color.

Even before the pandemic started, America was rated by some global indices as being the most prepared nation in the world. That seems a bit ludicrous in hindsight. But even then, in terms of healthcare access, America was rated as 175th out of 195 different countries. This was always known to be a massive vulnerability that would cost the country dearly during a crisis of this kind. And, sure enough, it has, in a very preventable, very tragic way. And this has to be addressed. If this can’t — if we can’t use the lessons from this pandemic to realize that universal healthcare is a thing we have to fight for, I don’t know whether — I don’t know whether we’re going to do any better, not just for the future phases of this pandemic, but for future pandemics to come and all the other health problems that we still need to deal with.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ed Yong, I wanted to ask you about the Trump administration’s continued isolationism in terms of, for instance, the attempts to demonize China as the source of the pandemic, and constantly criticizing and attacking the World Health Organization. Yet China, even though the virus started there, has been able to contain it dramatically. What has the Chinese government done right, compared to what the U.S. government has done?

ED YONG: So, you know, China clearly made missteps earlier on. There were problems with transparency, of alerting the world to problems early on. These were issues that have been problems since the original SARS in 2003. But China did take steps to control the pandemic.

I think what we really need to remember now is that the pandemic shows how quickly diseases can spread around the world and that no country can stand alone. No country can wall itself off from the rest of the globe and expect to be fine. The world needs to work together to deal with threats like this. You know, the word “pandemic” comes from the Greek pan and demos, “all citizens,” “all people.” And that is what is required to deal with these problems.

The United States now, in seeking this isolationist stance, in pulling back from the WHO and other international alliances, is really shooting itself in the foot. You could argue that China made missteps early on and that we need new international norms to stop those lack of transparency from manifesting again, but it’s the international community that’s going to create the legal structures and the norms that will ensure that the entire world is better prepared for the next crisis. And if America withdraws, it is losing its seat at the table. It is losing positions of influence. And it is allowing those norms to be drawn without it. Now, maybe some people think that America doesn’t need the rest of the world. But they’re wrong. And by forfeiting that standing, that position of diplomatic power, it really is, I think, taking steps that will cost it in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, we just have 10 seconds, but I wanted to ask you about the highest-level U.S. delegation, led by Alex Azar, the head of Health and Human Services, to Taiwan. Clearly, Trump wants to stick a finger in the eye of China. But what would be very important here is if the U.S. learned the lesson of Taiwan in how it dealt with the pandemic, immediately going to testing, national responses to testing and protective gear and masks — a true lesson for the United States to learn.

ED YONG: Yeah, I think humility would be an amazing lesson to learn. Other countries have dealt with this pandemic well. And if America can actually shed this sense of exceptionalism and look to what other nations have done well, maybe we can learn lessons that will protect people in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: Ed Yong, we want to thank you so much for being with us, science writer at The Atlantic who’s been covering the pandemic extensively since March. His cover story, we will link to, is titled “How the Pandemic Defeated America.”

Next, we go to San Quentin prison. We go inside, where 25 prisoners and a guard have died from COVID-19, the nation’s largest coronavirus outbreak. We’ll hear from two prisoners who contracted the disease. Stay with us.

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