If Joe Biden is looking for a bumper sticker for his campaign against Donald Trump, I’d suggest this one: “Make America Immune Again.”
This pandemic has both exposed and exacerbated the fact that over the last 20 years we as a country have weakened so many sources of our strength. We’ve simultaneously eroded our cognitive, ecological, economic, social, governance, public health and personal health immune systems — all the sources of resilience we need to get through this pandemic with the least damage to lives and livelihoods.
All of these immune deficiencies are the logical outcome of how we’ve let ourselves go as a country, how we’ve let ourselves be dumb-as-we-wanna-be for so many years — devaluing science and reading, bashing public servants for political sport and turning politics into entertainment, not to mention adopting horrible eating habits that have left 40% of Americans obese.
Dumb-as-we-wanna-be is epitomized by the guy in Austin, Texas, who last week shoved a “park ranger into the water while the ranger was explaining to a crowd the need for social distancing,” as CNN reported.
Warren Buffett was right: When the tide goes out you see who’s swimming naked. And now it’s us. We are still exceptional, but now it’s in the fact that we lead the world in total coronavirus cases and deaths from COVID-19.
“We were the leading country in everything when I was young,” Gloria Jackson, a 75-year-old retiree from my home state, Minnesota, told The Washington Post. “And what are we now? We’re mean. We’re selfish. We’re stubborn and sometimes even incompetent. … It seems like some of these other countries almost feel sorry for us. … We can’t get out of our own way. … There’s no leadership and no solidarity, so everybody’s doing whatever they want … which means everyone who’s vulnerable is losing big.”
This erosion of our collective societal immunity has been fed by many sources over the years, but none more than a Republican Party that has simply jumped the tracks. Donald Trump’s election was a byproduct of our lost immunity, but his leadership has now become a giant accelerant of it.
At a time when we desperately need to be guided by the best science, Trump’s daily fire hose of lies, and his denunciations of anything he doesn’t like as “fake news,” has contributed mightily to the loss of our “cognitive immunity” — our ability to sort out truth from lies and science from science fiction.
At a time when we need a globally coordinated response to a pandemic, Trump has wrecked every alliance we have.
At a time when we need high social trust in order to have a coordinated response at home, Trump’s political strategy of dividing us and playing everything both ways — even telling people both to rise up against their governors and to lock down according to his guidelines — is the opposite of the “all in this together” approach we need to win this battle.
At a time when access to affordable health care is extra important — when frontline workers need to know that if they go to work and fall ill, they will have some safety net to protect them — Trump has been trying to destroy the Affordable Care Act enacted by President Barack Obama without even thinking through an alternative.
At a time when we’ve never more needed our early warning systems to be operating at peak potential, the four top jobs at the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence “have all been filled with temporary acting officials for literally every day that COVID-19 has been on the world stage,” Garrett Graff recently noted in Politico.
And Trump’s vindictiveness toward any career public servant who challenges his narrative has surely contributed to the weak response from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts are afraid to raise their hands to contradict the president.
What would it take to make ourselves collectively more immune to COVID-19? It starts with the understanding that the only thing these weeks of lockdown have done is slow the spread of the virus. We still need a sustainable plan for saving lives and livelihoods until we get herd immunity, naturally or from a vaccine. There are three basic approaches.
One is the Swedish approach of partial lockdown, protecting the most vulnerable and gradually allowing the healthiest to acquire the infection, recover and build herd immunity naturally.
Another is the Chinese strategy: strict lockdown followed by back-to-work flows, accompanied by masks, social distancing and the full use of China’s state surveillance systems to test, trace and quarantine any carriers of the virus to keep it contained until a vaccine can provide herd immunity.
We seem to be opting for a more democratic version of the China model — but in a totally haphazard, every-state-for-itself manner.
What are our prospects of success? I asked Dr. Vivek Murthy, Obama’s surgeon general, who just published a thoughtful and timely book, “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.”
“Even if we can’t be as aggressive as China in terms of surveillance and testing, the truth is, we are, at best, only 10% of the way there. Simply put, we are behind,” Murthy said.
Yes, a strategy of gradually lifting lockdowns based on different risk categories can make sense, he added, but only if every state has in place widely available testing that generates rapid results — results that are efficiently turned over to teams empowered to immediately trace and then quarantine the infected or the most vulnerable, in big towns and small, to block any further spread of COVID-19.
“Speed is everything,” Murthy said. “Time lost equals lives lost.”
The number of tests we are doing — which Trump is always boasting about — is irrelevant unless you can reliably and quickly get a test when and where you need it, and the results can be converted into efficient tracing of others who might be infected.
“By that measure we are falling far short,” Murthy said. “It is your ability to find an infected person through testing — and then all their contacts — that matters most.”
That’s because the biggest challenge we face in America today is “community spread,” Murthy explained. “Consider a diabetic parent living in a small home with three children who need to go back to school and the other parent needs to go back to work. How do we open up safely and prevent them from bringing the disease home? Practically speaking, how do we actually protect the vulnerable?”
Murthy suggests the federal government do a version of what China did: Rent empty hotels to provide quarantine options to the most vulnerable or those infected, and hire some of the massive numbers of unemployed workers to become part of tracing teams in every state under the lead of public health experts.
In sum, if we are going to save the most lives while getting the most people back to work to prevent an epidemic of unemployment, depression and despair, it is going to require a federally coordinated, democratic version of the China strategy.
But Trump resists that kind of science-based, nationally coordinated approach, because it serves him politically to urge his supporters to resist his own administration’s health guidelines.
Trump seems to think he can bluster, bluff and talk out of both sides of his mouth with Mother Nature — the way he did in real estate and has done on so many issues as president, when his party could always cover for him.
But it doesn’t work that way with Mother Nature. She is not a contestant on “The Apprentice.” She is just chemistry, biology and physics. We’re the contestants on her show. We don’t get to fire her. She gets to fire us.
She throws viruses, hurricanes, floods, droughts, heat waves and pandemics at us to sort out who’s the fittest. And the ones who survive have one thing, and one thing only, in common: They are the most adaptive at generating the chemistry, biology and physics needed to meet the challenge.
That’s all that matters. All those who can’t, get fired or, rather, are returned to the manufacturer.
Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.