Home of the brave? Coronavirus epidemic reveals America's fundamental weakness

Despite America's national mythology, this crisis has revealed a weak, divided and totally unprepared nation

Published March 21, 2020 12:00PM (EDT)

Tattered American flag flapping in ominous sky (Getty Images)
Tattered American flag flapping in ominous sky (Getty Images)

The United States of America is a weak country. All the flag-waving, patriotic speeches and obtuse declarations of superiority have long seemed overly conspicuous — and history has no sympathy for the delusional. It continually exposes the vulnerability, fragility and inanity of a nation that has the wealth, resources and human intelligence to cultivate a magnificent civilization, but repeatedly sacrifices the common interest and public good on the altar of avarice.

Our military extends itself into every inch of the planet, starting wars that it cannot win, while more than half our nation's discretionary budget in any given year is wasted on the Pentagon. Runaway militarism was useless on Sept. 11, 2001, when 19 terrorists, armed with boxcutters, brought the country to its knees. Academic and CIA experts on Osama bin Laden — the mastermind of the evil attack — agreed that one of his aspirations was to draw America into lengthy wars with ambiguous missions, depleting its treasury and morale as the days of battle and the body count grew in number. The U.S. recited its lines as if from bin Laden's script, sending thousands of troops to die and setting fire to $6 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some of that money could have saved lives had the Bush administration heeded the warnings of the Army Corps of Engineers and Louisiana authorities, and replaced the levees in New Orleans. Its failure to repair the weakened infrastructure protecting one of America's greatest cities was responsible for unnecessary death and destruction when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. For several days in the summer of 2005, the world watched as the United States was helpless to save its citizens, who pleaded for help on the rooftops of flooded homes or struggled through the squalor of the Superdome – a football stadium turned makeshift shelter without sufficient food, hygienic products or medical supplies to properly care for children in the "world's last remaining superpower."

The mad-dog greed of corporate America, the finance industry, and the "too big to fail" banks coupled with nonsensical free-market fundamentalism to initiate a bipartisan deregulatory agenda and the slashing of social services. In 2008, the bill arrived. The housing market crashed: Millions of people lost their homes and many more lost their jobs. The liquidation of middle-class wealth, particularly severe for black and Latino homeowners, continues to drag the country down into a miasma of shame, rage and suspicion. While the Obama administration was successful in preventing a full-blown depression, there has been no real recovery for the 50 percent of Americans who have no savings or the millions who struggle, second by second, in the cruel category of "working poor."

The poor and working class will suffer the most pain and hardship as the entire country undergoes a lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus. There is nothing like a pandemic to put into perspective all the red, white and blue chest-pounding, exposing "American exceptionalism" as a bad joke.

Once again, the world's richest country was tragically unprepared and ill-equipped for a crisis. Insufficient testing capacities make the severity of coronavirus a mystery within America's borders, while a dysfunctionally narrow, business-oriented health care system prevents many people, including those with chronic conditions, from receiving the treatment they need.

President Trump had already failed to replace the global pandemic response team at the National Security Council after their mass resignation. He had also closed 39 of the 49 CDC offices overseas, and ended the program called Predict, which had the principal task of studying animal-borne diseases to determine which ones might go viral among humans.

American leadership has failed to summon the will to create adequate remote testing centers, build anywhere near enough ventilators, or even convince all of the nation's governors and big-city mayors to cancel public gatherings. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma has donated one million testing kits to America, and the Italians have donated 500,000. President Trump, displaying his own generosity and goodwill, attempted to bribe German scientists working on a coronavirus vaccine to sell the rights exclusively to the U.S.

Never one to miss an opportunity for promoting racism, Trump has also taken to referring to COVID-19 as the "Chinese virus." One of his aides, showing off a psychopath's sense of humor, called it the "Kung Flu."

Deepening America's medical, financial and political wounds is the dangerous ignorance of nearly half the electorate. Only 56 percent of Americans consider coronavirus a "real threat," according to an NPR/PBS/Marist poll. NPR also reports that 60 percent of Republicans do not believe that the pandemic is a "menace." There is a strong statistical overlap between those who care little about the coronavirus, think that climate change is a left-wing hoax, and would continue to support Donald Trump if he broadcast the decapitation of his political enemies from the White House lawn. 

Americans who believe in scientific evidence and adhere to a conception of the common good will have to find a way coexist with those who think the answer to every problem is more ammunition, tax cuts for the rich, and shouting about "freedom." But public education and the mass media must begin taking decisive measures to guard against widespread stupidity in future generations. A country cannot thrive when nearly half of its adults are in open revolt against reality.

Improvements to public schools and public communication require the same investment of funds and personnel as building safer infrastructure, creating a medical system that works for all its citizens, and regulating industry for the protection and prosperity of workers and consumers.

The prevalent philosophy of individualism in the United States discourages, and at times even demolishes, communal thinking. There is a close connection between the widespread social and cultural isolation that exists in so many American communities and our inability to create laws and institutions of governance that work in the common interest.

Footage of Italians in quarantine singing to each other from apartment balconies and rooftops has inspired the world. Rather than suffer alone, even when immobile, the Italian people are sharing with each other the gift of music, amplifying its beauty and faith in the possibility of human triumph over adversity.

Here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, the picture is a bit different. The Los Angeles Times reports that "gun sales are surging." 

By David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of six books, including "Exurbia Now: The Battleground of American Democracy" and "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters." He has written for Salon, The New Republic, Washington Monthly, CrimeReads, No Depression, and many other publications about politics, music and literature.

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