WE HAVE been through a trying national trauma since the beginning of 2020—one of the gravest public-health calamities in our country’s history and a governing challenge more daunting than any we have seen in peacetime since the Great Depression. The sheer scale and intensity of it all make it difficult to step back and take stock. And it isn’t over yet.
But we face an even more fundamental obstacle to serious analysis. We will have trouble learning lessons from our pandemic experience because we live in a time of unremitting negativity about America on all sides of our culture and politics. All we can see is what is wrong with our country, and you can’t learn much if you aren’t willing to acknowledge successes alongside failures.
To be sure, our response to the pandemic offers no shortage of failures to criticize. More than 600,000 Americans have so far been killed by the virus, and a better national response could surely have kept that number lower. The early rollout of testing was horribly botched. Public-health officials were repeatedly caught distorting what they knew in an effort to manipulate the public’s behavior, or caught allowing political priorities to twist their advice in ways that made them hard to take seriously. Elected officials frequently played to the crowd to generate clickbait rather than trying to lead by interpreting the available facts. Former president Donald Trump was unsteady, unfocused, uninformed, and often unthinkably irresponsible at the helm of the federal bureaucracy. And our society quickly polarized its understanding of the crisis, with views about risks and responses, the effectiveness of particular drugs, the usefulness of masks, the value of vaccines, and more, all following partisan lines rather than evidence.
That very polarization helps explain why we see only failures when we consider America’s pandemic response. Half the country thinks the response revealed that the right is America’s biggest problem, as evident in a rejection of science and expertise and a resistance to collective action that supposedly have amounted to a deadly selfishness. The other half thinks we learned that the left is the country’s chief problem, as evident in a corrupt elite that recklessly politicized expertise, needlessly shut down the economy, and seized upon a national emergency to tighten its grip on every form of power. Whatever you make of those views, they aren’t really lessons of the pandemic. Rather, they are the prejudices we all brought with us to the pandemic. We have eagerly seized upon some ways in which they were affirmed over the past year and a half, but that is no way to make sense of reality.
So what if, without denying any of these failures, we tried instead to begin by learning something from America’s successes in responding to the virus? Our first instinct may be to say “what successes?” But in fact, the United States has done some crucial things very well. And it seems our successes are closely connected to our failures.
The particular way in which America mobilizes in emergencies—not through focused civic discipline, but through immense exertions of power, money, and energy—helps explain both why we often seem inept and rudderless at first in the face of major challenges and why we often ultimately achieve astonishing practical feats in taking them on. It is also why we frequently fail to give our country credit for its triumphs. Seeing what we got right will therefore also help us see more clearly, and in a less partisan way, what we got wrong and what we might do to better handle serious crises in the future.
WE DID NO WORSE
AMERICA’S EXPERIENCE of the pandemic does not actually stand out as a failure in comparative terms. It has certainly been much more painful than the experiences of the Asian democracies, but it has broadly resembled that of much of the developed West. The cumulative number of COVID deaths in the U.S. relative to our population amounted to just over 1,800 deaths per million people as of the summer of 2021. That’s a lot lower than in Italy, a little lower than in the United Kingdom and Poland, and a little higher than in France and Spain. Canada did a good bit better than we did by this measure, but Belgium did a good bit worse. The same basic picture emerges when you consider the other key indicators of the severity of the crisis, such as caseloads and hospitalizations, relative to population. In terms of outcomes, our country has not stood out from the pack.
Even in areas where we began as a stand-out failure, most notably testing, we quickly made up ground. As of March 31, 2020, the United States had run only four tests per thousand residents—far below the rate of much of Europe and Asia. All we could talk about back then was how efficient South Korea’s testing regime was and why we were so far behind. But the U.S. actually surpassed South Korea’s cumulative per capita level of testing by the middle of April 2020 and soon raced ahead of all the Asian democracies and most of Europe. The sense that our testing regime was an embarrassing disaster had become deeply ingrained by then, and we continued to argue about whether it was the fault of Donald Trump, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or whoever our least favorite governor might be—even as the United States was rapidly becoming a world leader on this front. Our poor start had grave costs, to be sure, but it was not the whole story.
That pattern has a lot to tell us about America’s performance more generally. Again and again, as circumstances evolved or our understanding of the virus changed, our first response to a new challenge was chaotic and overwhelmed. Our politics fell into arguing about whose fault it was—even as the country was mobilizing and taking on the problem with gusto and ultimately with success. Be it around the near-collapse of New York City’s health system at the outset of the crisis, supply disruptions and shortages in the spring of 2020, the economic hardships many Americans soon faced, the challenges of remote schooling, or the development and distribution of vaccines, early difficulties led to a perception of failure that defined our mood even as those difficulties were decisively overcome.
This has kept us from appreciating the magnitude of some of our country’s achievements, and seeing where we have run well ahead of the pack. It somehow feels wrong to speak of congressional effectiveness, for instance. But the United States clearly mounted the boldest, largest, and most effective response in the world to the economic calamities that accompanied the pandemic.
That response, too, started with pandemonium and despair. As economic activity began to shut down in early March, pressure mounted on Congress both to support the public-health response and to provide some relief to individuals and businesses seeing their incomes and revenues collapse. But the Democratic House and Republican Senate were bogged down in partisan rancor, and President Trump wavered between dismissing the danger of the virus and fanning fear about it. Two early measures, enacted on March 6, and March 18, were small and unfocused, and they mostly intensified the sense of incapacity in Washington. As a third measure began to take shape, most observers were struck by how inept the process seemed. Several failed attempts to win 60 Senate votes for the bill only added to that sense.
And yet, that third measure—the CARES Act—got wrapped up and signed into law by March 27. It was the largest emergency-spending measure in the history of the U.S. government, and it was relatively well directed. The bill spent $2.2 trillion on assistance to individuals, unemployment benefits, help to businesses, and support for state and local governments. Over the following year, Congress followed that up with three more bipartisan measures—none quite as large as CARES but all gigantic by any normal measure, and each geared to filling some gaps left by the others.
By the middle of 2021, the United States had spent more than $5 trillion on its pandemic response, in coordination with an aggressive monetary response from the Federal Reserve. The scale of that effort dwarfed those of other developed economies: It was about 50 percent larger than Britain’s total pandemic economic measures, and more than three times the size of the response of the French, Italians, and Spanish (relative to their economies). And the spending was generally rooted in the reasonable principle that, in a pandemic recession, policymakers should focus on helping those who have lost income rather than spurring aggregate demand.
The result was far from perfect, but it would have to be described as an enormous success. The pandemic had brought about the sharpest and deepest economic contraction since the Great Depression, with unemployment skyrocketing by more than 10 percentage points between February and April of 2020 and GDP falling by about 3.5 percent for the year. But both household wealth and household income actually grew significantly in 2020, according to Federal Reserve data. The savings rate spiked, and even consumer spending—which fell sharply in the early months of the pandemic—resumed pre-pandemic levels by the early months of 2021. Most state and local governments avoided the painful fiscal crunch they were anticipating. At the end of June 2021, economists at KPMG projected that “the U.S. is primed to be the first country to return to pre-pandemic GDP trends.” Many Americans experienced great economic hardship in the course of the pandemic, but living standards throughout the economy held up shockingly well, and largely because of the federal government’s swift and massive action.
That action was taken by a divided Congress in an election year, and in a time of intense and bitter partisanship. Yet it was so effective that by the time President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, eager for a strictly partisan intervention for which Democrats could claim credit, he had to strain to justify significant new spending. If anything, it was clear that some elements of the rescue effort of 2020—especially the increased unemployment benefits—had overshot and were inadvertently keeping people out of the workforce. Moreover, the additional spending the Democrats ended up appropriating now threatens to spur higher inflation. That’s a problem, but it’s not the problem we might have expected a year ago. It is, rather, evidence of the effectiveness of Congress’s solution to that more fundamental challenge.
THE GREATEST of America’s pandemic successes, however, has surely been the vaccine effort. This is where we have stood out most. Our country’s long record of enormous public investments in academic medical research—including especially the generational investment in the Human Genome Project beginning two decades ago—made the development of the innovative mRNA vaccines possible. And the vast infrastructure of small and large pharmaceutical firms drawing on the genius of America’s great research universities created the conditions for a swift response to a new and unfamiliar virus.
The vaccine story has been, at its essence, an American story.
The genome of the virus was first made public in China on January 11, 2020. The American pharmaceutical company Moderna, working with federal researchers from the National Institutes of Health, produced the first doses of an mRNA vaccine to protect against the virus two days later, on January 13. By late February, the NIH was launching a Phase 1 clinical study; the first study participant received a shot in his arm on March 16, 2020. Several other companies soon began their own parallel vaccine-development efforts. Nothing even close to this pace of development and testing had ever been seen before.
The Trump administration, with backing from Congress, quickly moved to provide the resources necessary to support this unprecedented scale and pace of research and to prepare a distribution effort to follow it. What came to be called “Operation Warp Speed” set out to enable the development, testing, approval, manufacture, and distribution of an effective COVID vaccine within a year. The federal government would pre-purchase enough doses to vaccinate every American, taking the financial risks upon the taxpayer and freeing the pharmaceutical companies to move fast. Congress allotted 10 billion dollars to the task, but it was clear that if the work required more, then more would be forthcoming. There was no shortage of skepticism, yet thanks to the unprecedented sense of urgency and to the open spigot of dollars in Washington, things moved with astonishing rapidity. Three American-made vaccines were approved and ready for distribution by the end of 2020.
Then the distribution followed the same familiar pattern as every other element of the American response: overwhelmed pandemonium leading to intense and highly politicized criticism soon overcome by the sheer scale of mobilization on the ground.
The effort began as a massive bottleneck, leading to far slower early distribution than the Trump administration had promised. As Politico’s Rachel Roubein reported on New Year’s Eve, “the calendar will flip over into 2021 with the U.S. well short of its goal of vaccinating 20 million Americans against the coronavirus.” State and federal officials struggled to define the highest-priority groups for vaccination—the elderly? frontline workers? teachers?—while healthcare providers and seniors struggled with crashing appointment websites, and local health officials had no answers to offer. The president-elect soon joined the chorus of complainers. “If it continues to move as it is now, it’s going to take years, not months, to vaccinate the American people,” Biden told reporters on December 30. And he promised that his administration would accelerate the pace of vaccination to a million shots a day.
That might have seemed like an ambitious vow in those early and chaotic days, but in fact that breakneck pace was achieved before Biden even took office. On January 11, 2021, exactly a year after the genome of the virus was first published and nine days before Biden was sworn in, 1.25 million doses of the vaccine were administered in the United States—crossing the million-shots-a-day mark for the first time. By April, more than 3 million doses were going into arms every day, and by August nearly 350 million doses had been administered in our country.
By that point, just as had happened with the field hospitals prepared but left empty in America’s largest cities early in the pandemic, and with Congress’s financial relief, supply was well exceeding demand. The American response had not only met the moment but exceeded it. And the challenge now on the vaccine front is persuading skeptical Americans to take that free shot.
Both that continuing challenge, which is no small matter, and the character of the original mobilization have tended to leave Americans with a sense that our country has failed even when it has succeeded spectacularly. This is why really learning lessons from the pandemic will require us to focus on what we have done well in order to grasp how to improve on what we have done poorly.
WE MOBILIZE IN
OUR OWN WAY
THESE LESSONS OF SUCCESS add up to a general observation about the nature of what contemporary America does well and poorly in a crisis. A massive societal mobilization in response to an unexpected challenge can take two sorts of forms, broadly speaking: We might call them a mobilization of discipline and a mobilization of capacity.
The first involves rising to the challenge through solidarity, orderly compliance, centralized coordination, and the sacrifice of individual preferences for the common good.
The second involves rising to the challenge through energetic action, the deployment of overwhelming power and money, and the sheer scope and reach of activity.
In theory, a country might excel at both simultaneously; in practice, the two tend to call upon quite different if not contradictory sorts of national characters, and pretty much no one does both well.
The Asian democracies, including South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, proved exceptionally capable at mobilizing discipline in response to the pandemic. They quickly put forward rules of restraint—mandating masks, imposing rigorous surveillance and contact-tracing regimes, isolating even from their own families those who were infected—and their people accepted these rules and abided by them. This was not only very effective but also very impressive. It gave them and us the sense that they had designed an organized, focused response, and it kept caseloads under control.
The United States is just awful at this kind of civic discipline. It isn’t who we are, and it isn’t going to be. Americans did make great sacrifices and show serious restraint to abide by pandemic rules, of course. People shut down their lives, withdrew from public places, kept away from family and friends, masked their faces, and curtailed their activities. But we did all this unevenly, grudgingly, and only up to a point. Uniform, preventive compliance in response to authority was never in the cards.
I was personally witness to a Zoom conversation early in the spring of 2020 in which a group of public-health academics briefed several members of Congress and their staffs about the techniques South Korea had used to trace COVID outbreaks and to quarantine the infected in special hotels. The briefing was followed by an awkward silence as the elected officials must have imagined themselves trying to sell these techniques to their constituents. There were no questions or comments, but only because everyone was too polite to say what they were thinking: “Are you kidding? That is never going to happen in America.”
Our allergy to this sort of civic discipline lay behind many of our failures in this pandemic. It was why things went sideways every time we needed to listen to an expert, or to act in unison, or to show restraint. Some of this is a function of the hyper-partisan distemper that characterizes 21st-century America. But much of it is just the long-standing unruliness of the American people.
Yet that unruliness has always been the opposite side of the coin of America’s greatest strengths. We may be terrible at mobilizing discipline, but no one is better than the United States at mobilizing capacity. We are slow and sloppy in awakening to action, but once we are awakened, we are capable of unimaginably immense exertions. These are often restive and poorly coordinated, but they are also dynamic, vigorous, and colossal in scope and scale.
This sort of mobilization of capacity often follows a pattern that feeds our tendency to see only the worst about our country these days. America’s first response to a major new challenge is often flat-footed and chaotic. Our government doesn’t have the standing reserve capacity to respond effectively and quickly to large public-health problems or natural disasters. And we wouldn’t really want it to: A government that had that kind of power at its disposal at all times would not be good for our freedom or prosperity. What would it be doing with that power when we weren’t facing a huge crisis?
The absence of standing capacity means it takes us a little time to mobilize, and during that period of mobilization, it feels as if no one is at the helm and nothing is working. The intense transparency enabled by modern media and social media exacerbates this impression, filling one news cycle after another with evidence of dereliction and fodder for recrimination. An impression of ineptitude takes hold. In time, and often fairly quickly, the vast public and private resources of our society do get mobilized and mount a massive and highly impressive response. But the original impression is hard to shake, and by that point, the media have moved on to the next outrage.
This has happened around a number of mobilization efforts in recent decades. The federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, for instance, was easily the largest and most effective mass evacuation in human history, clearing tens of thousands of people from a flooded major city in a few days with stunningly few casualties. Yet it is to this day considered an embarrassing fiasco because it started out as a televised mess. This pattern has kept us from learning lessons from America’s pandemic response. We have not internalized how impressive the mobilization of health-system capacity in New York City in the spring of 2020 really was. We have barely paused to marvel at how American educators took on the work of remote teaching with no prior preparation, and how quickly many of them made it up the learning curve. We have not thought through the lessons of Congress’s swift creation of new forms of social insurance on the fly. We don’t even give our country enough credit for the stunning vaccine development and distribution effort.
The point of acknowledging these achievements would not be to just pat our country on the back. Our successes do not erase our failures, or even justify them. Our inability to marshal civic discipline has serious costs, and we will continue to face those as we continue to fight the virus. Our vaccination effort, for instance, began to slow horribly after a certain point, as weak demand rather than short supply has become the chief obstacle. Canada and much of Europe had exceeded our vaccination levels by the beginning of August (though our country did reach the goal set by President Biden of vaccinating 70 percent of eligible people just a few weeks after the date he had aimed for). And overcoming vaccine hesitancy calls for a mobilization of discipline more than of capacity. We should not abandon such efforts, bad though we are at them. We can do better at civic discipline.
Seeing more clearly what we are truly great at, however, can help us know where to focus our efforts in this fight and how to prepare for future mobilizations.
WE ARE A PEOPLE
AMERICANS DON’T MOBILIZE into order—we mobilize into action, and our modes of mobilized action are often very disorderly. It’s in our character. Some of our greatest successes in this crisis have come when decision-makers have recognized that fact. The legislative response to the virus was not a set of rules for Americans to follow, but a set of resources for Americans to deploy. The health-system response did not set strict criteria for triage; it built respirators by the thousands and put enormous field hospitals in parks and football stadiums. The vaccine deployment began with a futile attempt to prioritize recipients, but it ultimately succeeded as a vast, chaotic dissemination of doses to every pharmacy and supermarket in the country.
Meanwhile, some of our greatest failures have come when decision-makers have insisted on ignoring the character of our society or blindly wishing it were otherwise. Attempts to manipulate people into behaving with restraint by shading the truth about caseloads, risks, or masks have frequently backfired, and with good reason. The better part of statesmanship is understanding the nature of the people you seek to govern. Technical expertise can never substitute for political judgment on that front, and public-health officials can never substitute for elected leaders who know their voters and who understand what our society does well and poorly.
That kind of self-knowledge should also inform the sorts of changes we make in the wake of this pandemic. We need to think of our emergency-response systems, in public health and otherwise, in terms of enabling the mobilization of capacity. They should be used to hold off disaster until we can get ourselves geared up—like a military built around reserves. Those institutions that can fill in gaps and empower mobilization should be reinforced. And those, such as the Centers for Disease Control, that were built on the premise that they will impose discipline in the early phases of a crisis probably need to be rethought altogether.
We cannot simply resign ourselves to our weaknesses, of course. We do need to improve our ability to marshal some discipline in a crisis, and we need to help our institutions gain more trust. But that can succeed only by recognizing the nature of our society and working from there. We cannot formulate national strategies around the wish that our national character were fundamentally different. We need to build them in light of our real strengths and weaknesses.
As we work to digest and assess America’s pandemic response, we should be careful not to undersell those strengths or overemphasize those weaknesses. The virus posed an immense challenge to every society. No government managed a smooth and effective response. Every nation has seen its vices magnified alongside its virtues. The standard against which we measure our leaders and ourselves needs to take that into account, so it can help us learn and improve. When disaster strikes, we should not expect from our society a tidy and efficient falling into line but a sprawling, messy, sloppy, yet mammoth and effective American mobilization.
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