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Noah Smith

Coronavirus Makes America Seem Like a Civilization in Decline

The Covid-19 crisis is another example of the nation’s inability to effectively respond to pressing challenges.

Coming apart.

Coming apart.

Photographer: Ivan Abreu/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Crises such as wars, depressions, natural disasters and pandemics can reveal differences in how effectively a society organizes itself. In the 1600s and 1700s, for example, Britain’s more advanced tax system allowed it to outspend Spain and France, while Prussia’s efficient army let it overcome larger opponents such as Austria. In the Civil War, the Union's industrial prowess allowed it to outlast and overwhelm the agrarian Confederacy.

Pandemics aren’t quite the same as wars, but they can also illustrate startling differences in the effectiveness of different countries. China, the place where coronavirus first appeared, initially tried to hush up evidence of the outbreak before pivoting to a draconian crackdown that was crudely effective. South Korea and Taiwan, scarred by the SARS epidemic 17 years ago, were ready with effective response systems that tested large numbers of people and traced their contacts in order to isolate contagious individuals before they showed symptoms. European countries tended to respond less effectively, with Italy and Spain having two of the worst outbreaks and the U.K. dithering over its strategy while wasting crucial time.