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The US set to hit 200,000 COVID-19 deaths, a symbol of national failure

COVID-19 has exposed America’s underlying political, social and economic weaknesses with fatal efficiency – and the national nightmare isn’t over yet.

Washington: When Anthony Fauci predicted in late March that up to 200,000 people could die from COVID-19 in the US, the figure seemed beyond comprehension. At that stage fewer than 3000 Americans had died from coronavirus and President Donald Trump was speaking optimistically about having the country’s economy “opened up and raring to go” by Easter.

Just a week later, Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, said a US death toll of 60,000 was more realistic. The data showed that physical distancing guidelines were limiting the spread of the virus, offering hope the US would be able to get its outbreak under control.

In April the White House began to muzzle Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. AP

In fact, Fauci’s dire forecast turned out to be an underestimate. On Monday, the US was poised to burst through the figure of 200,000 deaths, on Johns Hopkins University’s numbers, while other measures, such as the Bing-COVID-19 tracker, show the US has already surpassed the figure.

The grim milestone cements the US’s bleak status as the country with the highest recorded death rate in the world. It’s still common for the country to record more than 1000 COVID-19 deaths a day; so common that such numbers are now just background noise in the national conversation rather than major news.

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Here in the US capital, the business district around the White House remains eerily deserted as most office workers stay at home. Public schools are closed, with all classes being conducted online – a decision that could have disastrous educational impacts for disadvantaged students. Meanwhile, you can eat indoors and visit the Smithsonian American Art Museum and go to the gym.

Life goes on – except when it doesn’t.

Two hundred thousand deaths means millions of grieving friends and relatives spread across the country. For Americans such as Rosie Davis – who lost her 75-year-old mother, Mary Castro, five days after she contracted COVID-19 – they are not just sorrowful but angry.

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“Her preventable death is due to the most craven, callous failures of the federal and state government,” Davis wrote in a furious obituary published in her local newspaper, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram this month. “Her beautiful life should have never been collateral damage in their rush to reopen the economy.”

In per capita terms, the US death toll remains behind other hard-hit countries such as Spain, Britain and Brazil. But it has been gaining ground on this metric. America’s per capita death rate now exceeds Italy, France and Sweden, which adopted a famously laissez-faire response to the virus. The US per capita death rate is more than twice as bad as neighbouring Canada, five times worse than Germany and 15 times worse than Australia.

The distinctive thing about America’s pandemic experience is how, at a national level, the virus has never truly been brought under control. Italy, France and Britain suffered devastating early waves but eventually brought their daily death counts down to single and double digits. In the US, the decline has been far less pronounced. Here the average daily death count peaked at 2200 in April, came down to 500 in July before bouncing back over 1000 deaths a day in August.

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People have pre-existing conditions that make them especially vulnerable to the coronavirus and so do countries. The US had an array of co-morbidities that made the nation especially vulnerable to COVID-19. The virus has exposed, with fatal efficiency, the country’s underlying political, economic, medical and societal weaknesses.

First there was the country’s sprawling geography and…

Matthew Knott

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