When the coronavirus pandemic first began to surge, I posited a thought on one of the podcast episodes in those early days. How could the American system possibly confront a pandemic? At the time, China was nearing 10,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, and fears were growing as the coronavirus spread across the globe.
While I am no fan of authoritarian systems, at least China could build a wall to isolate and contain the pandemic if the government chose to. Their culture and the governing systems allowed for such totalitarian measures. The US and most of the western world could not say the same. Our social systems built on freedom and civil rights seemed a vulnerable spot when it came to forming a cooperative effort to block, contain, and isolate a micro enemy in our interconnected world. The pandemic seemed a uniquely potent threat to the US system, where national unity and trust stood at an all-time low near the end of Donald Trump’s term in office.
Would the pandemic upend the global system and give totalitarian states and systems the upper hand while wreaking havoc in the lands of freedom and democracy?
Two years later, we can now test the results of different systems and ideologies and rest assured of one thing – they all failed.
The Collapse of the Commanding Heights
China flexed its authoritarian muscles in the early days of the pandemic. Censorship and lockdowns were implemented to isolate the coronavirus and keep the outside world’s interference at bay. While the spread of the coronavirus beyond these restraints occurred anyways and seemingly rendered the effects of the Chinese strategy blatantly ineffective, China persisted.
For a while, despite the spread of covid worldwide, China even seemed to gain ground. While the US and Europe broke records for daily cases and deaths, China appeared to keep a lid on the spread of the coronavirus locally with its zero covid policy.
Fear, Anger, and the American Way
As for the west? It was worse than ever imagined. Not only did every single government initiative prove ineffective at stopping the spread of the virus, each effort or even suggestion from national, state, and local leaders became a point of division within the wider country.
In Michigan, so-called freedom lovers hatched a plan to kidnap the governor who was enforcing the state’s lockdowns. Protests spread across the United States in the summer of 2020 to contest the government’s overreach through nationwide lockdowns.
To be fair, there were mixed signals issuing out from both the media and the government. Anti-lockdown protesters were portrayed as extremists, while Black Lives Matter protesters were deemed a voice for justice – both gathered in large groups defying lockdown and social distancing measures, but one was deemed morally legitimate, and the other was not. Three months before the arrests of the alleged kidnapping conspirators in Michigan, the Washington DC public works department painted Black Lives Matter north of Lafayette Square in the first summer of the coronavirus pandemic.
By the end of 2020, the US system stood completely dumbstruck in the face of a global pandemic. Even as the government mailed out a second round of checks to citizens and businesses throughout the country and President Trump contracted the virus, wearing a facemask or not wearing a facemask became a political statement. Going to the grocery store became a political signal.
In the first year of the pandemic (March 2020 to March 2021), more Americans died of the coronavirus than American soldiers in every war of the 20th century combined. Then came the delta wave and finally the omicron wave. By February 2022, during the omicron wave, the United States approached nearly 1 million new cases per day. And in the face of those numbers, a strident mass of the population continued to resist facemasks, vaccines, and any sense of serious treatment regarding the pandemic.
The deadliest day for Americans during the pandemic occurred around the time of the inauguration of President Biden in January 2021. Daily coronavirus deaths throughout that month ranged from 3,600 to 4,400.
However, a change in presidential administrations did not make a significant difference in the situation on the ground. One year later, the US once again reported more than 3,500 coronavirus deaths per day during the omicron wave.
Today the daily numbers of coronavirus deaths in the US are only slightly lower than they were in the summer of 2020. It is no longer a crisis, though. We all moved on. Better to pretend the pandemic is over than deal with the miserable failure of our system to handle the crisis.
We Found Out What We Are Made Of
To be clear, the American system of democracy, freedom, and liberty utterly failed not only to combat the pandemic but to hold together in the face of a pandemic. In the midst of one of this generation’s greatest tragedies, America disintegrated into polarizing divides of anger and hatred. No political leader or party stood up to bridge those divides. In fact, most political contenders leveraged the divisions for their own advantage.
Our economy and society are more battered in the aftermath of covid than most realize. It will require a generational effort to repair the fractures still being uncovered. And that repair will only occur if we are not interrupted by a new crisis in the coming months.
Command, Control, and Confound
But if the systems of freedom and liberty failed to turn back the pandemic and its aftermath, the command and control efforts afforded to nations like China proved little better.
For the last month, 25 million residents of Shanghai, China’s financial hub, have sat under lockdown as the Chinese government enforced a ridiculous zero covid policy. While Chinese citizens sat in their homes awaiting government drop-offs of food and water, the city has been plagued with food shortages. The shortages have been exacerbated by many Chinese panic buying. Who can blame them in the face of government incompetence that has plagued the lockdowns?
Anger among the usually cooperative Chinese citizenry is beginning to boil over as the Shanghai lockdowns continue with no end in sight. Video has emerged of Chinese police officers in hazmat suits beating angry citizens forced to isolate in quarantine facilities.
In the first weeks of the Shanghai lockdown, the government separated parents and children, finally easing up on this tactic only as the outcry went global. The city’s quarantine facilities are frequently apartment complexes where residents are told to relocate so their homes can become housing for the infected. As the apartment complexes have filled with the infected, plumbing has broken down, raising new risks of health concerns apparently far more deadly than the omicron strain of the pandemic. China has reported less than 5,000 official deaths from the coronavirus pandemic since February 2020.
The Worst Is Still Ahead
While it is tempting for Americans to look east and shake their heads in disgust at what is occurring in Shanghai, we should look beyond the main stage. In Shanghai’s ports, among the busiest in the world, shipping is at a standstill as the Chinese government awaits the end of the lockdowns. That shipping freeze is the beginning of the next wave of a crisis heading toward the US and the western world.
The supply chain crisis, already pounding global economies since the start of the pandemic, is about to get much, much worse. One in five of the world’s shipping containers is currently stuck in backlogged and congested ports. Thirty percent of these are in China. Since March, the Shanghai lockdowns have doubled the number of ships simply sitting at port.
Across the economic landscape, from commodities to energy to food to consumer goods, interruption is unfolding at an unprecedented scale. A new era of chaos and confusion is spreading across the globe, and no one has an answer. If the past two years have taught us any undeniable lessons, surely it is this! From the left or the right, no political ideology or doctrine has offered a competent response to the crisis.
If political loyalties are stabilizing at all today, it is only in the sense of determining which side of the descending divide we stand upon – not for presenting solutions. Nothing has worked for the last two years, and there is no reason to believe that trend is going to improve as we face the next stage of the global crisis.