Skip to content
Subscriber Only
Noah Smith

Coronavirus Might Make Americans Miss Big Government

When it comes to fighting a pandemic, institutional competence matters.

Senate HELP committee holds hearing on Coronavirus.

Senate HELP committee holds hearing on Coronavirus.

Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg

In South Korea, the number of people who are confirmed to have been infected with Covid-19, the pandemic disease commonly known as coronavirus, has ballooned to over 5000 as of the time of this writing and will certainly continue to rise. In the U.S. the official number infected is only 118. But much of this difference may be an illusion, due to differences in how many people are getting tested. South Korea has made a concerted effort to identify all the people infected with the virus, creating drive-through testing stations. The U.S.’ testing efforts, in contrast, look almost comically bungled.

The list of ways that U.S. institutions have fumbled the crisis reads like something out of a TV comedy: The number of test kits issued in the U.S. has been a tiny fraction of the number issued in South Korea. An early testing kit from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) contained a faulty ingredient and had to be withdrawn. Regulatory hurdles have slowed the rollout of tests, with officials from the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration only now discussing what to do. There are stories of possible coronavirus patients being denied testing due to maddeningly strict CDC limits on who can get a test. Some cities may have to wait weeks for tests to become widely available, during which time the populace will be left in the dark. Worst of all, the CDC has now stopped disclosing the number of people being tested, a move that seems likely to spread panic while reducing awareness.