The pandemic has gone on long enough to draw some broad historical lessons. The first is that America’s management was not fitting for the leader of the free world. Compared to our achievements in the Second World War, it is hard to escape the conclusion that we disgraced ourselves. Dysfunction was common and broad. We lost a lot of people who needn’t have been. Healthy grieving calls for an honest evaluation for its reasons, redemption comes through addressing them (but nobody should hold their breath waiting for healthy grieving to happen).

Much of our dysfunction is a part of our system, best thought of as “chronic” conditions. Like: the kind of intrusive contact tracing used all over the more successful world was never feasible here. Factor that into the price we pay for a culture of distrust of centralized government. Ironically, our greatest failures also came from over-centralized governments (read on).

Another key chronic failure factor was our leading the world in the lifestyle diseases that open Covid patients to the greatest risks: heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. We have been quietly paying the costs of these for decades. During Covid we paid a price plain to see.

Another foundational flaw is that our culture has degraded to the point where perfectly reasonable matters of manners are contended as “rights and freedoms.” This comes under the category of broad culture, a subject way beyond the scope of this blog post. But suffice to say: if common sense has to be enforced, if we need police interventions and court orders to get Americans to cover their faces during a pandemic spread by droplets, the battle for a functional culture is already over. Asia has been stunned by our dysfunction (Europe had breakdowns in functionality similar to the USA). Granted, China’s approach to the pandemic was as draconian as their system. Their way of managing the pandemic would be unthinkable anywhere else. They crow of their achievement in managing the pandemic (which they are entitled to), in order to gain political legitimacy (which they are not entitled to), the way we once crowed over our putting a man on the moon (while they point to our dysfunction and ask “is this the Democracy you want?”). But Taiwan, my vote for the world leader in managing the pandemic, which has the same Chinese culture, had 7 fatalities. Which is less than the number of deaths I have personally seen working as a paramedic in New York City (I saw 3 in one day). Taiwan’s achievement shows how individual responsibility makes the CCP’s way cruelty without benefit (as all authoritarian systems are). Freedom works, provided the citizenry are self-governing. Japan and South Korea teach the same lesson.

But there were plenty of “acute” failures too. Many of our mistakes came from our polarized political climate, which has devolved into one side disregarding the other on principle, as a deep-tendon reflex. Incredibly, whole regions of the country were set ablaze with the virus months after New York showed the enormity of the challenge. The refusal to accept lessons-learned were not just along Team Red vs Team Blue faultlines. Bureaucratic turf defending (and failure to adapt) played a huge role: deep Blue Los Angeles refused to implement the hard-won policies and procedures developed in deep Blue New York, which has the best clinical data set in the whole world.

The rest of the acute lessons are in grey areas somewhere between two very distinct poles of failure and triumph, the high and the low. The lowest point was that the worst casualty-producing effect of the virus was a political choice no clinician would make: Governor Cuomo’s decision to discharge the at-risk elderly into the increased-risk nursing homes (that decision will be covered in its own series of posts).

More government failure came in the incompetence of the CDC’s virus test, which could not distinguish it from lab water. Dwell on this irony: you could be prosecuted for solving the virus testing problem, caused by bureaucratic bottlenecks. But the deliverers of the world from the pandemic, shoo-ins for the Nobel Prize in medicine, developed the vaccine because they were able to evade those bottlenecks.

That failure of the testing regime was a key factor in America’s near-complete failure to implement the kind of contact tracing used both to mitigate the spread of the virus and to mitigate its economic damage. And contact tracing need not be an affront to our rights (the ones remaining for us, anyway). Virus tests are easy to make: cheap and easy ones were being deployed in Africa before America. An evolution of tests, unleashed by the free market, in what would have been the most lucrative market in a century, might have made abundant tests available on Amazon, which has the best distribution network in the world. That would have radically mitigated the economic fallout of the mandatory lockdowns, as the economy might have been open to those with clear tests. Being able to participate in the economy would be a powerful incentive for folks to get, and stay, tested. And to take their vaccine when eligible, so as not to be economic pariahs. This is how a solution that embraced freedom might have worked.

The high pole is that the solution to the pandemic came out of what seems the last arena of American dominance: technological development (*where it is not illegal). There is a reason a German company led by Turkish scientists wa the first to solve the pandemic in America, and not somewhere else. This prime-pole lesson is also a wholesale defense of Libertarian ethics: the vaccine, the only decisive solution to the problem, was developed despite (around, and in avoidance of) the government’s regulatory process. I got my vaccine December 18, well aware that each day of delay posed a risk to my life and limb. I have no more wish to be a factor in a King-Cuomo political calculus of “necessary trade-offs” than the current at risk elderly do (tradeoffs only clinicians are qualified to make anyway, and based entirely on objective medical criteria).

The rest of the debates of the management of the pandemic are arguments in the margins, in narrower and narrower grey areas between those two poles. Like: legal outdoor eating spaces that evolve to resemble illegal indoor ones; which gatherings are “acceptable rallies” and which are “taboo insurrections;” and bizarre contradictions like indoor gambling being accepted, but indoor worship forbidden. But the incoherence will not help us the next time the nation faces such a challenge, in the cycle of low-trust/low-expectations, leading to lower-trust/lower expectations, our system seems locked in.

Giving up freedom to the government to manage the pandemic was counterproductive, partly because our government has grown as incoherent as our culture. Those two would seem to go together like peanut butter and chocolate (and the subject of yet another post). My life depended on good information, and I never listened to any American experts, because of our crippling political compromises. I checked this guy. A pandemic expert, who gained expertise actually working in pandemics, whom the Korean political system made no effort to manipulate for political gain.

The summation lesson: to grant the (our) government extraordinary power to solve a problem, is also to give over extraordinary power to disallow alternatives, which is an evolutionary imperative, which makes for grave power to make problems worse.

Eugene Darden Nicholas

About Eugene Darden Nicholas

Eugene Darden (Ed) Nicholas is from Flushing Queens, where he grew up sheltered from the hard world, learning the true things after graduating college and becoming a paramedic in Harlem. School continues to inform and entertain in all its true, Shakespearean glory. It's a lot of fun, really. In that career, dozens of people walk the earth now who would not be otherwise. (The number depends on how literally or figuratively you choose to add). He added a beloved wife to his little family, which is healthy. He is also well blessed in friends and colleagues.


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