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America’s Coronavirus Report Card: Grim But Incomplete

The U.S. response to the pandemic raises questions about whether the country is still capable of taking on big projects.

America’s Coronavirus Report Card: Grim But Incomplete

The U.S. response to the pandemic raises questions about whether the country is still capable of taking on big projects.

On the battle’s front lines.

On the battle’s front lines.

Photographer: Kena Betancur/Getty Images North America
On the battle’s front lines.
Photographer: Kena Betancur/Getty Images North America

One of the common knocks against America is that it is no longer capable of “big projects” such as making an atomic weapon, building an interstate highway system or putting a man on the moon. When it comes to the huge national challenge that is Covid-19, so far this critical charge seems correct.

One possible response to Covid-19 would have been to scale up testing early, as was done in South Korea, China, Iceland and other places. Nobel Laureate Paul Romer has called for testing 20 to 25 million Americans a day as a bare minimum (so far the U.S. has done barely 8 million tests total).

Yet the collective U.S. response to this proposal has been underwhelming. Congress did recently allocate $25 billion for testing, but Romer sees a need for as much as $100 billion. If Covid-19 testing were America’s big project, I would give this country a grade of D+.

A second part of testing is contact tracing those who are carriers of Covid-19, and warning their contacts to get tested. This tracing can be done by smart-phone location apps, and there is a significant human labor component. People who test positive need to be called or otherwise contacted and given advice for treatment. Such a process could require hundreds of thousands of workers, all of whom will need training.

Thankfully Massachusetts is pursuing some hiring toward this end, and New York is implementing a contact tracing program as well. (Bloomberg Philanthropies and Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, are donating $10.5 million to the effort.) But the contact tracing idea is mostly stillborn at the national level, as there aren’t even any apps available yet, much less the supportive infrastructure, and it’s not clear Americans would be willing to use the apps anyway.

As for contact tracing as a major national project: The grade here is slightly lower than for testing. Improvements may yet come, but right now I give it a D.

Another big project would be to equip every American with a quality mask and promote mask-wearing as “the new normal.” Yet here too the country has largely failed. Early advice from public-health authorities was that mask-wearing was not worthwhile, though this turned out to be incorrect. Meanwhile federal restrictions made it difficult to import masks, even though the country’s mask stockpile had been greatly depleted in 2009 and not replenished. It is still the case that many front-line workers and even medical professionals do not have access to top-quality masks.

There does seem to be a recent improvement in mask-wearing among the general public, at least where I live in northern Virginia. But there is still a long ways to go. So the grade here is C-, though without the very recent progress it might have been an outright F.

How about lockdowns and social distancing? Well, those policies did not deliver benefits as quickly as promised, and now Americans are getting antsy. Many states are reopening or are on the verge of doing so, even as public health experts caution otherwise. This is true in my home state, by the way, which is governed by Democrats.

It seems the U.S. started its lockdowns too late. Countries such as Denmark and Austria, which imposed them early, have had relative success in beating back the virus and minimizing casualties. When it comes to lockdowns and social distancing, at least Americans tried, and perhaps will return to them with greater dedication. But they have not been an unqualified success. I cannot do any better than to give America a C-.

So where are the bright spots?

There are still a few big projects where America might succeed — or more accurately where the global scientific community, led by the U.S., might succeed. Scientists might develop effective antivirals to lower the death rate from Covid-19; they might develop effective antibody treatments; and they might develop vaccines quicker than had been anticipated, among other possible advances. 1

All of these matters remain open questions, so no grades can be assigned as of yet. Still, there is an intense flurry of scientific activity in all these areas, with a furious exchange of research ideas on the internet every day. The internet, of course, was America’s last successful big project and is still marvelously at work.

So can America still do big projects? It’s not out of the running just yet, but it is putting all its eggs into one big basket — that of biomedical researchers. If they are not up to the task, then the U.S. is in big trouble. I am optimistic, however, that they are.

  1. Disclaimer: I am director of a fund that hands out grants to such researchers and to some individuals working on other anti-Covid-19 projects, including testing and masks.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Tyler Cowen at tcowen2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net