The United States has lost the stomach for the coronavirus fight

Edward Luce: Donald Trump is taking victory laps as US continues to lose 1,000 people a day to Covid-19

Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, listens to Donald Trump speak about the coronavirus during a task force news conference at the White House in March. Photograph: Erin Schaff/New York Times

Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, listens to Donald Trump speak about the coronavirus during a task force news conference at the White House in March. Photograph: Erin Schaff/New York Times

 

It is an odd moment to surrender to coronavirus. Right and left, conservative and liberal – all parts of the US spectrum embraced the language of war. The metaphor was clearly too glib. Downgrading the fight now would be like George Washington taking a vacation after crossing the Delaware.

Mission accomplished only works when there is a vaccine, which is at least a year away. Yet large parts of the country, including Donald Trump, are taking victory laps.

Little surprise that Anthony Fauci, the most trusted face of American science, is no longer pictured anywhere near Trump. His last televised White House appearance was in April. This week Dr Fauci said the pandemic was “not close to over yet”.

The same cannot be said for the task force to which he belongs, which is being wound up. That signal needs no decoding. The White House has lost any interest in prosecuting the war, which is now the preserve of the states.

A few weeks ago Europe was far ahead of the US in terms of mortality rates. They have now switched places. America continues to lose about 1,000 people a day – and in some states that are relaxing social distancing rules, infection and hospitalisation rates are rising.

This week Berkeley scientists estimated the US had prevented 60 million infections by taking early lockdown measures. That is roughly 250,000 deaths that did not happen. The period the scientists analysed was up to April 6th, which implies many more lives have been saved since then.

That discipline is now dissolving. Trump will restart his re-election campaign next week with a full-blown rally in Oklahoma – his first since early March. That will give a green light for Americans to crowd together again without censure.

Las Vegas is broadcasting even starker images. Its slot machines are ringing again. To judge by the footage, most punters are not wearing masks. Forget war. Going for the jackpot is a more fitting metaphor for America’s coming pandemic summer.

Polarised nation

As scientists keep reminding us, the virus respects no boundaries. Unfortunately that applies as much to the Black Lives Matter protests as it does to armed paramilitaries crowding their state capitals. This has blunted the Democratic party’s ability to criticise Trump for filling the stadiums, as he is likely to do next week.

Covid-19 does not distinguish between decent people and white nationalists. In a deeply polarised nation, ideology beats science.

So what is likely to happen? The most likely outcome is a second coronavirus wave in the coming months. Many assume the virus goes quiet when the temperature rises. There is no scientific consensus on this.

One of America’s fastest-rising infection rates is in Arizona, where temperatures have not dropped below 32 degrees in two weeks. India, which is approaching monsoon, has one of the world’s fastest rising infection rates. On Sunday 136,000 new people were infected worldwide, which was a record for one day. One in seven of those was American.

A related outcome is the impact on the November election. As the lockdown eases, short-term economic activity will pick up. That is Trump’s only hope of regaining office.

Opinion polls show Joe Biden extending his lead into almost forbidding territory – except on the economy. Trump is trailing overall by double digits. But America’s voters are still ambivalent about which of the two presidential candidates is best placed to revive the economy.

The chances that Trump will bring Fauci back on to the podium are thus very low. The voice of science is the last thing the president wants to hear. Which means that the third – and longest-lasting – outcome is likely to be America’s damaged global standing.

In the pandemic’s early stages, the world watched the US squander its time advantage by downplaying the oncoming threat. Trump should take the brunt of the blame. One or two Democratic mayors were also notably complacent.

The US is now on the verge of leaving the battlefield before the war is over. To be sure, tens of millions of Americans will continue to follow guidelines.

But a country is only as strong as its collective will to break the infection chain. The result will be a “patchwork pandemic”.

Having the world’s best laboratories will come to naught if Americans refuse to fight side-by-side in the same war. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020

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