Roughly a full year into the pandemic, the nation has now crossed the grimmest of milestones: 500,000 Americans dead. That’s more coronavirus fatalities than any other country has seen, and more deaths than in any U.S. military conflict except the Civil War. It’s a numeric monument to a tragic leadership failure as America faced its greatest health crisis in a century. But the toll also can be a unifying impetus to make sure the nation gets it right from now on.
It was one year ago this week when then-President Donald Trump noted just 15 Americans had contracted the newly identified virus. “And the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down close to zero,” he predicted, lauding the “pretty good job we’ve done.” History will record that, in fact, America under Trump did almost everything wrong in addressing the crisis.
An early travel ban, limited to people entering the U.S. from China, was patchy and porous. Trump’s refusal to throw the weight of the federal government behind a national testing and tracing campaign made it impossible to know where the virus was spreading. Instead of working in partnership with governors, Trump engaged in petty political fights with them. Instead of setting an example on masking and distancing, he denigrated those who took such precautions and personally contributed to the body count by hosting mostly maskless rallies. Instead of trusting in the science, he repeatedly disputed and dismissed it, helping foster the bizarre political phenomenon of red-state America refusing to take the threat seriously.
Even the administration’s one big success during the pandemic — the record-fast development of vaccines for the virus — has been marred by a chaotic rollout of vaccinations, yet again demonstrating the importance of a nationally coordinated response.
In his brief time in office, President Joe Biden has established a federal pandemic testing board to coordinate testing efforts nationally and has created top-level positions in the administration to coordinate other aspects of the response. He has ordered mask mandates on federal property as well as planes and trains. He has ordered the U.S. to rejoin the World Health Organization after Trump’s petulant and self-defeating withdrawal. Biden is currently pushing through Congress a historic pandemic relief package that he says is necessary to confront the historic economic challenges the virus has caused.
A half-million dead is a crashing failure by any standard. And it’s not over. While infection numbers are finally dropping, the threat from new variants is rising as states struggle to get the vaccine into arms. But Biden’s approach — treating the pandemic response like a full-scale war, with all the mobilization of federal powers and appeals to national unity that such an endeavor requires — should be the template going forward.