The U.S. failure to handle the current pandemic shows that the way we view a crisis may be more important than how we plan to confront it.
That all-important holiday in the U.S., Thanksgiving, arrived late last November, with the second wave of coronavirus infections already underway.
Fifty million people fanned out across the country to visit friends and family for an occasion that is equivalent to the British Christmas dinner.
They traveled in spite of urgent appeals to the contrary from health officials at all levels. Already, the U.S. had one quarter of the world’s infections, along with a quarter-million fatalities.
As predicted, the U.S. last weeks broke records for new fatalities while the rate of new cases reached unprecedented heights.
Given the importance of the holiday, one might think that we would let ourselves off easy. In fact, a fresh round of self-incrimination is probably underway. According to polls, practically everyone was already dissatisfied with the country’s response to the pandemic.
The question we all seem to be asking ourselves is not whether we botched the crisis, but how. Many can answer in a word: Trump.
Indeed, journalists have busily recounted every last error and willful obstruction of the current administration, which does seem to be singularly baffled by the scope of the crisis and the nature of the problem.
But events like the Thanksgiving travel debacle have compelled critics to turn their attention to the population itself, which has shown a regrettable inclination to protest not only confinement measures but the simple habit of wearing sanitary masks.
Could something be fundamentally wrong with the national character, which this crisis has revealed? Many propose exactly that — that our characteristic sense of individualism precludes an instinct to act for the common good, that declining levels of trust make us cynical and aloof, that our federalist form of government stymies national initiatives, and fosters a climate of mixed messages and contradictory priorities.
These criticisms are probably accurate. According to the consulting firm Hofstede Insights, the U.S. does indeed exhibit strong tendencies towards not only individualism but self-indulgence.
Trust levels are at an all-time low, according to polls conducted by Pew Research Center. And our federalist system, which decouples national-level policy from local-level execution, does indeed hamper interstate cooperation, and creates not just a climate of mixed messages, but a raging tempest.
At the same time, none of the countries that have performed exceptionally well in this crisis are absolutely superior to the U.S. in these matters. In fact, they constitute no general profile at all.
Among the best are New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Finland, according to a list compiled by Bloomberg. Germany is widely considered to have performed superlatively, so has Greece.
So, New Zealand and Finland are less individualistic than the U.S., according to Hofstede. Compared with the Asian nations, however, they are categorically equivalent to us (US-Americans). New Zealanders, as it happens, are more self-indulgent than us and suffer from even shorter-term thinking.
Taiwan and South Korea are more corrupt than the U.S. by a long shot, according to Transparency International. The three Asian countries have levels of trust that are abysmal, by any standard. And Germany is governed by a federalist system that prioritizes local autonomy.
Political leadership is in league with health authorities, and their incentives focus on the positive aspects of cooperation rather than the negative consequences of disobedience.
Could it really be just a PR coup, then, that has enabled Taiwanese to overcome their cynicism and New Zealanders to think about someone else for a change?
It seems more likely that success resulted from the way that people in each country tended to view the threat. A closer look at New Zealand, for example, reveals a widespread view of the virus as a foreign attack, the kind of thing that tends to unite citizens of all stripes.
In Asia, low levels of trust may have complemented the need in this crisis to avoid contact with strangers.
Greece is especially interesting: there, government officials had a startling realization way back in February that a health crisis of any kind would completely overwhelm the country’s limited medical system.
That sense of alarm evidently struck the entire country with the same force of reckoning. By mid-March, Carnival was cancelled, schools were closed, and a lockdown was in place. “Across the country,” the New York Times reported, “many Greeks were quick to accept the new normal.”
One thing that the U.S. has lacked throughout this crisis is a compelling reason to view the threat posed by Covid-l9 in such a way that neutralizes our own particular problems. And that may be worse than any one problem itself — even a problem as significant as Donald Trump.