Mighty Sick

A global pandemic denudes the nation

Mighty Sick

Photo by Spencer Cotton

When I moved to New York City from Dubai in 2007, I believed I was coming to the greatest city in the world, in the greatest country in the world. I believed, with adolescent zeal, that it was the city I’d seen in sitcoms and in movies and as the backdrop of news reports and old educational films about Ellis Island. I knew it’d be gritty and ruthless and diminishing. But I also expected functionality, solidity, and security.

The surprises came in dribbles. I grew up in a city without income or sales taxes. In New York, bills and checkout registers consistently ambushed me with inflated numbers. “The add-ons are for your own benefit,” I was assured. “Welcome to life in a democracy!” “Freedom is taxation with representation!”

And there was a peculiar sort of freedom in the city. I could wander around for miles, past landmarks and monuments of global fame, and hop on a subway home. I could rub shoulders with anyone, of any ilk, touch any building, any brownstone. But the city’s grit, I noticed, wasn’t an aesthetic flourish — part of its bad boy uniform. It stemmed from sweeping infrastructural decay. The solidity of the 20th century had crumbled into the 21st century’s sinister but well-masked deregulation and thus decay of public and social services. Functionality was a rare reward, not the norm.

Where were my taxes going? The subways were filthy. Worse, they hardly worked. Garbage piled up on the streets, cleared haphazardly at inconvenient hours. Illegal and barely legal and entirely legal construction roared away at the discretion of avaricious developers who contributed to startling homelessness and rent inflation problems. And the hospitals! Never had I encountered such chaotic, outdated, rudely-staffed, ruinously expensive hospitals. This was the “First World”? The pinnacle of civilizational grandiosity?

The formidable characteristics I was cinematically compelled to romanticize as a teenager also took on different forms in the real Big Apple. They arose less from skyscrapers, bedizened artists, and cantankerous record label executives, and more from a hypnotizing current of American flags, of militaristic slogans like “God Bless The Troops” and “If You See Something, Say Something”. Security, as it happened, appeared less in the senses of health, housing, and speedy trials, and more in the tens of thousands police officers patrolling the streets, the egregiously-armed soldiers pacing train stations and airports, and the omnipresent signage and loudspeaker ramblings about “safety” and “heroes” and “protection” and “service”.

At first, the pageantry of nationalism seemed cartoonish. Surely everyone was in on the joke, I thought to myself. There was something apocryphal about it, as if it had been imported from Hollywood to parody the Bush administration. But then I noticed that even my liberal American friends, New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers alike, displayed some level of deference to the patriotism of which 9/11 was not the provenance so much as a crowning fomenter. With an eerie blankness, they left portions of the jingoistic and colonialist rhetoric unquestioned, untouched. Worse, they believed some of it. The myth of exceptionalism, I realized, was a sort of national congenital defect.

As the years went by, the gulf between rhetoric and reality grew more noticeable. With each hospital visit, medical bill, health insurance lapse, rent hike, student loan payment, and subway breakdown, I became more inured to the falsity of the adjectives — the superlatives — used to describe the country I had come to call home. I would roll my eyes but otherwise overlook the irony that some “Third World” countries had better social services and infrastructures and safety nets than this mighty exemplar, this king of the jungle. For in what measurable sense was America the greatest country in the world?

There’s a classic (albeit pompous) scene in the first episode of Aaron Sorkin’s show, The Newsroom, in which Will McAvoy, a prominent news anchor played by Jeff Daniels, shocks an audience of college students by listing the reasons America isn’t number one — namely, that it mostly ranks number one for things that ought to not be celebrated and much farther down the list for attributes of civic success. Today, this seems somewhat clichéd. We all know that the country with the world’s largest GDP and ego spends (wastes) more each year on its military than the next twelve countries combined. We know that it outspends nearly every “developed” country on healthcare while still forcing its citizens to shoulder brutal sums, if not outright bankruptcy. We know that our grand empire triumphs on the global stage in neither literacy rates nor childcare costs, neither employment rates nor student debt, neither carbon emissions nor prison population. Still, the crowds who cheered at the current president’s pledge to make the country great again, and who cheer today at his proclamation that it’s been made great once more, have none of these requisites in mind. Neither, it seems, do mainstream Democrats who pledge “results” instead of “revolution”, and who pander to what’s familiar while denigrating the idea of systemic change.

And so, save for one or two national politicians courageous enough to point to the festering underpinnings of the body politic, the rhetorical divide remains. The dictum (that America is great) and the truism (that it really isn’t) coexist, however contradictorily and however much daily life begs ordinary citizens to reconsider their national pride.

But something strange is happening. The coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe is allowing for a real-time comparison between countries in a way I haven’t seen before. As far back as I can remember, emergencies and tragedies and apocalypses have been regional, endemic, or abstract. It’s been possible to escape the idea of an all-encompassing paradigm shift by looking elsewhere — another city, or a bar with half-priced drinks, or pictures of a celebrity’s sumptuous vacation. The novel coronavirus is a great equalizer in this sense (access to testing and respirators aside). Spreading through slums and metropoles, infiltrating the ranks of world leaders and food truck vendors alike, it commands a scrutiny of our cultural habits, a reconsideration of our civic health, and perhaps even a reimagining of our republic.

America’s botched response to the arrival of the virus has, for once, been impossible to shroud with distractions or platitudes or the child-like attention span of the news cycle. It is crescendoing, ineluctable, and therefore shining a ruthless sort of light on exactly how the United States trails most of the developed world and exactly what looks different when an inversion of civic priorities formalizes corporate enrichment to the detriment of the citizenry.

In the island nation of Singapore, COVID-19 tests and treatment are free for all residents. Private and public clinics have been ordered to charge a flat fee of 10 SGD (about $6.90) for diagnoses and treatments related to any flu-like symptoms. Temperature checks and travel history questionnaires at the airport and major buildings winnow out patients with mild coronavirus symptoms, and a government-created app physically tracks people who are quarantined. Of the roughly 500 people who have been diagnosed with the virus in Singapore, only two have died (one of whom had just been hospitalized with pneumonia) and nearly half have recovered. According to an investigation by the Los Angeles Times, “Singapore has mobilized a system of state control that is one of the most efficient in the world. Authorities have aggressively isolated infections, tracked down and questioned their contacts, levied tough penalties for breaking quarantine or furnishing false information, and used friendly news outlets and social media to urge the public to remain vigilant while avoiding panic… The government posts daily updates with details about each new case — down to the person’s age, sex, nationality and the street where they live.”

Despite these seemingly invasive measures, Singaporean residents as well as scholars and health officials around the world widely agree that the triumph is due less to authoritarianism than to governmental transparency and a top-notch healthcare system. Another way of putting it: Other nation-states renowned for cosseting big business are still able to preserve the basic tenets of public health and social order.

In Hong Kong, travelers have their temperature screened at all ports of entry, not to mention malls and offices. Local clinics provide detailed information to the health authorities. There is a high number of hospital beds per capita, and new quarantine facilities (with ventilators) are quickly constructed when necessary.

In Taiwan, travelers arriving from Wuhan (before flights from China were suspended) were screened before they could disembark their planes. People who broke quarantine mandates were fined over $30,000. According to the New York Times, “When coronavirus cases were discovered on the Diamond Princess cruise ship after a stop in Taiwan, text messages were sent to every mobile phone on the island, listing each restaurant, tourist site and destination that the ship’s passengers had visited during their shore leave.”

Meanwhile, South Korea pioneered drive-through coronavirus test centers that can test between 10,000 and 20,000 people a day and then text patients their results. Since late February, South Korea has tested hundreds of thousands of people.

In the United States? Our political literature already abounds with tales of naked disorder and neglect. The COVID Tracking Project, run by journalists and biotech researchers, reports that as of March 8th, the U.S. had conducted a total of 3,099 coronavirus tests, less than a third of what South Korea was conducting in a single day, even though both countries had discovered their first cases at almost exactly the same time. By March 8th, South Korea had reportedly tested 189,236 people. Even Vietnam, not a “developed” country by any standards, had conducted more tests than the U.S. by this point.

The shortage of test kits — and thus the CDC guidelines that made it impossible to get tested unless one flew back from Wuhan gasping for breath — quickly became a picture-perfect apotheosis of the stonewalled and inept channels of communication between federal, state, and local officials. Red tape allegedly put in place to “protect people” ended up doing the opposite. The test created by the World Health Organization (and used by dozens of other countries) was customarily rebuffed in favor of one made in the U.S.A. The kits released by the CDC shortly thereafter were declared defective and in need of re-manufacturing. All the while, private clinics were forbidden from creating their own diagnostic methods. A nation that compulsively trumpets “safety” and “security” seems happy to take money from its citizens and spend it on just about everything (million dollar salaries, billion dollar bailouts, trillion dollar jet fleets) but their safety and security.

The lack of efficacy and efficiency sullies all aspects of the national response to this pandemic. People flying into the U.S. from epicenters of the outbreak in Europe, such as Italy and Spain, were shocked to be waved in by DHS officials — some even asked to be tested, to no avail. And even without basic screening procedures in place, immigration lines at American airports vaguely resembled those at the Greek and Turkish borders during the height of the refugee crisis. Then there is the problem of hospital beds. According to the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation, the United States ranks 31st globally for hospital beds per 1,000 people, falling behind Italy, Turkey, Greece, and China. Japan has 13.1. South Korea has 12.3. Russia has 8.1. The world’s wealthiest country (and highest spender on healthcare) has 2.8.

Such discrepancies on the global stage are ripe for the pillorying. While American news networks and newspapers sniggered at the number of Iranian government officials infected by the virus in February, U.S. congressmen, congressional staffers, state assembly members, and the mayor of Miami all tested positive in the weeks that followed. Meanwhile, Chinese billionaire Jack Ma announced he is donating 500,000 test kits and one million masks to the United States to assist “in these difficult times”.

Foreign newspapers have picked up on the chaos and are extrapolating accordingly. The effects of the virus, after all, extend well beyond the realm of medical care, laying bare the many levels infiltrated by the pestilence of unfettered neoliberal economics.

The shuttering of schools quickly shed light on the millions of children nationwide who can’t afford lunch. According to the School Nutrition Association, more than two thirds of public school students depend on free or reduced-price lunches for their daily meals. (At least the closures distracted from the number of public schools that don’t have soap and hot water.)

The alleged efforts of the Trump administration to purchase exclusive access to a COVID-19 vaccine being developed by a German biotech firm and assisted by German taxpayers betrayed our abiding federal reflex toward monopolization, an objective for which many industries (not least Big Pharma) eagerly lobby. Understandably, the German government moved to block any such commercial coup d'états. One federal politician (who also is a professor of health economics) tweeted: “The exclusive sale of a possible vaccine to the USA must be prevented by all means. Capitalism has limits.”

The possibility that a homemade, publicly-funded vaccine may be unaffordable for ordinary Americans reflects the ease with which public efforts are quickly acquired by private industry for exclusive capitalization. Price-gouging and inflated executive pay by pharmaceutical companies are happily overlooked — if not tacitly enshrined — by lawmakers who hand over the keys to the country’s medicine cabinet.

Bailouts without strings for big industries loom large and likely, revealing what Franklin Foer, writing for The Atlantic, calls “a familiar moral catastrophe”: that the federal government, beholden to corporate interests, hands over billions without demanding necessary reforms, using “protecting jobs” as subterfuge. Two thousand and eight was a great year for the banks, and 2020 will likely be stellar for airlines and casinos and public transportation monopolies. “Why should they get pulled from the fire while independent booksellers and local florists wither and die?” Foer asks. “This is the moment when Congress can shape an economy. It should demand, for instance, that the airlines keep their workers in their jobs; it should place hard caps on executive pay and prohibit stock buybacks; it can demand that airlines take steps to reduce their Sasquatch-size carbon footprint.”

Lastly, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the emergency relief bill signed into law this month, inconspicuously exempts companies with more than 500 employees and fewer than 50 employees from guaranteeing their workers paid sick leave. This effectively excludes an estimated 80% of the American workforce, painting a bigger picture: unlike many developed nations, the United States does not guarantee its workforce compensation when they fall ill. An investigation by the New York Times enumerates the companies too “parsimonious” to grant their employees such time off, forcing them to choose between health and income. This includes hundreds of thousands of workers apiece at McDonalds, Walmart, Target, Pizza Hut, Burger King, and Marriott. “Democrats initially proposed including a permanent paid sick leave requirement in the coronavirus package,” the Times wrote in the editorial accompanying its investigation. “But business groups raised their eyebrows and Republicans insisted on its removal. It is a decision for which Americans should hold businesses accountable.” More accountable, it would seem, should be the lawmakers duplicitously bound to such businesses, not to mention a system of government so permeable to their covert cajolery.

When Democratic primary contenders Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden finally faced off for a one-on-one debate on Sunday, March 15th, Sanders launched into an exhortation that had become both all-too-familiar and unremittingly precious:

Let's do something that the media doesn't do. Let's talk about the reality of American life. Why is it that, over the last 45 years, despite the huge increase in productivity and technology, the average worker today is not making a nickel more in real dollars? Why is it that, over the last 30 years, the richest one percent have seen a $21 trillion increase in their wealth; the bottom half of America, a $900 billion decline in their wealth? Why is it that we are the only major country on Earth not to guarantee healthcare to all people as a human right? Why are we the only major country not to have paid medical and family leave? Why do we give tax breaks to billionaires when half a million people are homeless today? And it comes down to...the power structure in America. Who has the power?

His questions weren’t rhetorical, and yet, even though we know the answers and can objectively understand the injustice of it all, they seem rhetorical. Just as I numbed myself to the gulf between the rhetoric of American greatness and the reality of American dysfunction, large swathes of Americans have grown accustomed to their quality of life — to believing that the facts of their hardship à la Bernie are not much more than the ideological flourishes of an unreasonable revolutionary, and to the posture of superiority as a comforting and inextricable precept of the American identity.

It’s why Sanders’ opponent, a crony of the establishment, could tout the familiar and flout revolution and still come off sounding lovable and trustworthy. “People are looking for results, not a revolution,” Biden retorted. “What are we going to do about the crisis now?...It's not going to be solved by a change in tax policy now. It's not going to be solved by a change in how we deal with healthcare. It has got to be solved with an emergency need right now.” That Biden was mostly serious here reveals the extent to which the inimical priorities of electability and incrementalism become part of the legislative cosmos. Deep down the schematic rabbit hole, Biden (probably) forgets that his platforms abide by and pander to the prodigal machinery, thus unconsciously hindering systemic reform in service of anthropomorphizing the status quo.

Biden was just as serious when retiring into proverbial greatness: “We have to lead the world. We should be the ones doing what we did during the Ebola crisis, bringing the whole world together and saying, this is what we must do.” It’s precisely this sort of cosmetic call to action, masking a much more profound denial of American debilitation, that unites establishment Democrats and Republicans. President Trump’s “USA” hat may look particularly buffoonish during his press briefings about the world’s richest country orchestrating the developed world’s worst response to the pandemic, but Trump isn’t (and has never really been) the problem. The spate of articles fixating upon Trump’s blunders since the arrival of the virus are still playing the easy game.

During a 1968 lecture titled “Power and Violence”, political theorist Hannah Arendt warned about the dangers of bureaucracy becoming so big that no one could possibly be accountable any longer. “The bigger a country becomes in terms of population, objects, and possessions, the greater will be the need for administration, and with it the anonymous power of the administration,” she said. “Bigness itself is afflicted with vulnerability. And while none can say with any assurance where and when the breaking point will be reached, we can observe, almost to the point of measuring it, how strength and resilience are insidiously seeping from our institutions, drop by drop as it were. And the same is true, I think, for the various party systems, all of which were supposed to serve the political needs of modern mass-societies in order to make representative government possible where direct democracy would not do.”

As for Bernie, he went on to answer his own list of questions:

I'll tell you who has the power. It's the people who contribute money, the billionaires who contribute money to political campaigns, who control the legislative agenda. Those people have the power. And if you want to make real changes in this country; if you want to create an economy that works for all, not just the few; if you want to guarantee quality healthcare to all, not make $100 billion in profit for the healthcare industry, you know what you need? You need to take on Wall Street; you need to take on the drug companies and the insurance companies and the fossil fuel industry. You don't take campaign contributions from them. You take them on and create an economy that works for all.

Once, in my junior year of college, I found myself in a heated debate about the role of the United States in Iranian affairs. The class was titled something like “Power, War, and Terror”. A girl sitting across from me suddenly interrupted what was likely an unsavory comment about historical revisionism and asked, “Why are you even in this country if you have so much to criticize?”

I remember being temporarily surprised, thrown off by her totalitarian line of reasoning. Critique, I reminded her, is a vital element of civic participation, certainly more so than limp acquiescence. That I can write and publish this article is one of the reasons I’m in this country — that I like this country. The extent to which the streets of New York City cater to a flâneur like myself is another. Mostly, it’s that despite the dysfunction, hypocrisy, and violence, I like being in on the action, and, for better or for worse, the world’s most charismatic narrative seems to be written here. That being said, I find nothing more fulsome than a political indictment that ends with a shrug and a grin — that tugs the sheets over the ugly and the sick before exiting the room.

Shaan Sachdev

is an anti-hysterical writer based in New York City. He covers politics, culture, and ontology; he moonlights as a sexual raconteur. Shaan's also written for The New Republic, Reason, and The Progressive.

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