Political dysfunction defines U.S. COVID-19 response


No country has been affected by the coronavirus like the United States. It now has more confirmed cases and fatalities than anywhere else in the world.

Editor’s note: Commentary by Huang Jiyuan. Edit and design: Wu Qiuping, Cai Yuesheng, Zhao Yuanzhen. Senior producer: Bi Jianlu. Managing director: Mei Yan. Supervisor: Fan Yun.

The U.S. is said to have the world’s most advanced medical infrastructure and technology. With such might, why has the U.S. suffered so much from this pandemic?

But, at the very beginning, the question of “how to manage the coronavirus” didn’t seem to register. It turns out, even the best medical conditions can’t override politics. And politics seems to be the Achilles’ heel of the world’s presumably “best” political system.

According to a recent Washington Post report, U.S. President Donald Trump “was not substantially briefed” about the coronavirus until January 18 when he was “in the throes of an impeachment battle.” According to the report, Trump was ranting to lawmakers at night and “making lists of perceived enemies he would seek to punish.”

It’s safe to say that Trump had his hands full at the time.

Alex Azar, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, refrained from pressuring the president given their “strained relationship.” Instead, he told Trump that the situation is being monitored and managed.

Impeachment and office politics couldn’t, however, stop the spread of the virus. But they distorted a person’s decision-making process. The New York Times reported that Trump’s response to the coronavirus during the impeachment battle was “colored by his suspicion of and disdain or what he viewed as the ‘Deep State.'” To him, many experts and capable bureaucrats belong to this group.

The answer is, not much other than partisan bickering. Trump accused Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of being “incompetent” and called the disease the Democrats’ “new hoax.” Pelosi retaliated by characterizing the administration’s response as “opaque and often chaotic.”

And by the end of February, the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. grew to nearly 70.

Findings of a research by Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at Tufts University, on how partisanship shapes an average American’s response to the coronavirus are revealing.

Before Trump declared a national emergency on March 13, the number of Google searches for hand sanitizer was inversely proportional to predominantly pro-Trump areas. Meaning, Trump voters were searching about hand sanitizers at a lower rate than people on the other side of the political aisle. Immediately after the national emergency was declared, the curve flattened out, and pro-Trump people became more aware of their health safety.

However, even when the problem became more prominent, partisan bickering continued. The two-trillion-dollar stimulus package aimed at jolting the economy took several attempts to pass the Senate. Each side accused the other of playing politics or serving its own interest.

Gregory F. Treverton, the former chairman of the National Intelligence Council, said that “this has been a real blow to the sense that America was competent.” And he is right. Political dysfunction has defined Washington for the past several months. And as the U.S. tops the charts of coronavirus cases and death tolls worldwide, there’s no sign of change.