We saw it coming, or at least we should have.
It was only a matter of time until COVID-19, a strain of coronavirus, reached the United States.
When the first cases arose in Wuhan, China, and it spread across the surrounding region, the U.S. was unprepared to deal with the impending virus, the New York Times reported.
As it reached Italy and other parts of Europe, some alarm bells went off, but the U.S. still failed to react quickly.
When the first case was officially confirmed in the U.S. on Jan. 20, President Donald Trump continued to assure everyone that he had it “totally under control” because it was just one person, the Times reported.
Even though we had a couple of months head start, the U.S. government turned a blind eye to the impending pandemic. In spite of the red flags around the globe, Trump convinced the American population the virus was a “hoax,” Business Insider reported.
But viruses are one of the most dangerous and unstoppable microscopic organisms on the planet, and they can spread like wildfire, according to Medical News Today. Once they are spread by a vector who didn’t travel internationally or comes into contact with someone who did, they are nearly impossible to control, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Krys Johnson, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Temple University, said the U.S. could have avoided its current predicament by getting involved two months ago.
“I think if we had adequate testing in January, then that would have eliminated the need for travel bans, and we could have screened everyone coming off planes and cruise ships,” Johnson said. “Containment would have been possible, and we would not have had to go as far as social distancing. We probably should have started taking precautions two weeks ago when Italy’s cases went from one to 100 in a day.”
Sarah Bass, an assistant professor of public health, gave a similar timeline.
“We should have responded in January,” Bass said. “It would have been prudent of us to understand that it would spread, and we should mobilize things. Now, we have to play catch up to get these things in place that should have been six weeks ago.”
Kiersten Knellinger, a junior public health major, said Trump’s lackluster response backfired, and a call to action early on would have saved us a great deal of trouble in the long run.
“I think Trump should have responded earlier than March because we were already aware of what was happening in two other countries,” Knellinger said. “If more people were quarantined earlier, then it would’ve reduced the chance of the virus spreading, and people could have better prepared before it spread to the entire U.S.”
The question was never if COVID-19 would reach the U.S., but when.
On March 11, we practically flipped a switch. That day, Trump spoke at a somber press conference, dispensing essential information and calling for national unity, instead of underestimating the potential spread of COVID-19, CNN reported.
The stark transition in Trump’s face — from glib contempt to solemn reverence — marked a shift in dynamic.
Overnight, the American public’s indifference turned to panic: streets became eerily quiet, grocery stores and hospitals became worryingly overcrowded and supermarket shelves — especially those holding soap, nonperishable goods and toilet paper — became completely deserted.
Trump’s blase attitude did not calm people down — it had the opposite effect, Bass said.
“Downplaying does more to scare people because people respond well when you tell them the truth,” she added. “But when you don’t give people information, they panic. I think there was a lot of disbelief and ignorance about how pandemics work, and this caught us with our pants down.”
It’s a relief that Trump, along with the rest of the U.S. government, is finally expressing concern and coming to terms with the severity of the situation, but is it too late?
After the World Health Organization’s declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, the Trump administration recommended against gatherings of more than 10 people for the next two weeks, down from the previous recommendation of 50, CNN reported.
Shutdowns have been imposed in certain states, like Pennsylvania, which requires non-essential businesses to shut down and encourages people to stay indoors and socially distance themselves as much as possible, the Intelligencer reported.
In some states, like New York and New Jersey, quarantines and shelters-in-place have also been implemented to curb the spread of disease before hospitals become overwhelmed, USA Today reported.
As the government is scrambling and trying to save the United States from suffering the same fate as Italy and China, it is apparent that the government put the economy over the health of the people.
“I think they knew it was going to be a big deal, but they did not want to start testing because it would hurt the stock market,” Johnson said. “Trump’s plan is a financial and political decision, and he has demonstrated his neglect for the health and wellness of low socioeconomic status people.”
Ironically enough, I remember discussing whether or not the U.S. was ready for the next pandemic, in my public health course last fall, after the federal government failed a simulation about responding to a global pandemic, the Times reported. I had a feeling in my gut that we were nowhere near ready for the next inevitable global public health crisis.
If one good thing can come out of this bleak situation, it would be that the U.S. uses this as a learning opportunity to not repeat the same mistakes in the future.
We can combat the spread of viruses COVID-19, but that involves preparation and early response. Otherwise, we’ll be endangering the lives of thousands.