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One consequence of the global uprising against police violence is that Covid-19 has been shoved off the front pages in recent weeks. Yet the pandemic has not really gone away, especially in the United States. In contrast to many comparably wealthy countries in Europe, the United States hasn’t seen a steep decline in confirmed Covid-19 cases or confirmed deaths. Rather, America has experienced a slight decline from the peak and then a long plateau that resembles, at best, a gently sloping hill.
But even that gentle decline is deceptive. As a continent-spanning country with a third of a billion people, the United States didn’t have a uniform experience of Covid-19. While New York and neighboring states were hit hard, many other parts of the country had much lower rates. To date, New York has had 1,593 deaths per million. Texas, by comparison, has had only 71 deaths per million.
On June 7, Texas Governor Greg Abbott even boasted about all the traffic passing through Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. “The busiest airport in the WORLD for the month of May was our very own DFW,” Abbott exalted. “COVID or Non-COVID, Texas will always be an economic leader.” A little over a week later, the AP reported that Texas was facing a “record-high number of new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.” According to the Covid Tracking project, when Abbott made his first statement about the busy airport, Texas had just over 1,250 new Covid cases confirmed; by June 16, there were over 4,000.
The geography of Covid-19 in America is shifting. Former hot spots like New York and New Jersey are seeing a steep decline, but 22 other states, mostly in the South and West, are experiencing a surge of new cases. Aside from Texas, Covid-19 is on the rise in California, Florida, Georgia, and Arizona, among others.
“As of Saturday,” The New York Times reported, “the daily number of new coronavirus cases was climbing in 22 states, shifting course from what had been downward trajectories in many of those places.”
This new surge is all the more troubling because it comes at a time when the lockdown is being lifted in most states and social distancing practices are relaxing. Mask wearing made only a partial inroad in American society during the peak of the lockdown. As the federal government and many states have started spreading the message that America is open for business, mask wearing is likely to become even less pervasive.
On Tuesday, the city council of Montgomery, Ala., held a debate on mandatory mask wearing. Despite the advocacy of doctors, who waited for hours to testify, the resolution for mandatory mask wearing failed on a tie vote. The drama in Montgomery echoes much of the debate across the country, as those warning of the resurgence of Covid-19 meet with resistance and denial.
The Trump administration is exacerbating the problem. Speaking to governors on Monday, Vice President Mike Pence tried to dismiss the surge in confirmed Covid-19 cases in many states as a statistical illusion created by increased testing. “I would just encourage you all, as we talk about these things, to make sure and continue to explain to your citizens the magnitude of increase in testing,” Pence said. “And that in most of the cases where we are seeing some marginal rise in number, that’s more a result of the extraordinary work you’re doing.”
The New York Times noted that “testing data has shown that such a claim is misleading.” Politico was equally harsh, saying, “Pence abruptly reinvented himself as a coronavirus skeptic this week, with comments and an op-ed article that stray into pandemic denialism.”
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow took the same line in a Fox News interview. “I think it’s something we have to get used to,” Kudlow said. “I think it’s controllable. We have much more experience handling these hot spots, small metropolitan areas. We are not intending to close down the economy.” (Remember, Kudlow is in the man who in February said of Covid-19, “We have contained this. I won’t say [it’s] airtight, but it’s pretty close to airtight.” Over 115,000 Americans have died of the disease since then.)
Kudlow went on to speak of the new surge as “flare-ups” and “small bumps.” This echoes Pence’s attempts to minimize the situation by referring to the new increases as “embers.”
Both Kudlow and Pence created a straw man argument by saying there is no “second wave.” Talk about a second wave may indeed be premature. As Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the government, told The Wall Street Journal, “People keep talking about a second wave. We’re still in a first wave.” Fauci then made a point of refuting Pence’s lie that the surge is merely a statistical byproduct of increased testing.
Even if the Trump administration were somehow magically transformed into a competent and honest government, the United States would still be in serious trouble right now. The nation has had more Covid-19 deaths than any other country in the world. Whatever achievement has been made in slowing down the pandemic has been through enormous sacrifices made by the American public, which bore the brunt of the economic and psychological cost of an extended lockdown.
While the lockdown was occurring, the federal government should have worked with the states to develop testing, tracing, and isolation capabilities. Instead, it was left to the states to deal with tracing and isolation, with uneven results.
This has left the United States particularly vulnerable to a new surge. Moreover, the social capital needed to call for a second lockdown is now exhausted. The killing of George Floyd, followed by mass protests, has frayed the social fabric. It’s unlikely that the trust and cohesiveness exists for the public to follow the government’s lead, even if there were a government worthy of trust.
Some models estimate that a true second wave will hit in late September. It will be all the more severe if the current first wave doesn’t really end. Covid-19 hasn’t gone away and is likely to keep getting worse for the foreseeable future—especially in the United States. It may not be pretty, but it’s the truth.