As of this writing, the United States, which has 4.2 percent of the world’s population, accounts for nearly 30 percent of total COVID-19 mortalities. Among Americans, a common response to such abysmal numbers has been to deflect, to describe this reality not as shared, but as someone else’s entirely. Thus it is often represented as a New York problem, as if New York were not part of the larger country. (This is a marked departure from the aftermath of 9/11, when nurses and firefighters from around the United States flooded in to help.) Or it is treated as the concern of only certain segments of the population. In a telling Washington Post article about the lifting of the stay-at-home order in Georgia, one man stated bluntly, “When you start seeing where the cases are coming from and the demographics—I’m not worried.”
“Demographics,” of course, is an ambiguous term, but one in two thousand black Americans has died from the virus, almost two and a half times the death rate for whites, while the overwhelming majority of deaths—some 80 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—are among Americans sixty-five and older. With this latter fact in mind, Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick went on Fox News to argue that the elderly should be willing to risk their lives to open the American economy. Many conservatives enthusiastically agreed. R. R. Reno, editor of the conservative religious journal First Things, wrote gleefully of spitting in the street while out for a walk in Manhattan. “A woman pushing a pram glowers at me,” he added. “Her eyes say, ‘moral criminal!’ ?” (Reno later tested positive for the virus.)
The historian David Perry has aptly described such performed hard-heartedness as “vice-signaling,” which the journalist Noah Berlatsky defined in The Independent as “a public display of immorality, intended to create a community based on cruelty and disregard for others.” Contempt for the common good is repackaged as clear-sightedness and worn as a badge of honor. During this pandemic, caring about the condition of the infirm, the unlucky, the weak, and the impoverished has somehow morphed into a contentious, politicized stance.
I thought of all this recently while in line at the outdoor market in Mesquer, a small beach town not far from Nantes, in one of the least afflicted regions in France. A mix of young couples, families with kids, and elderly shoppers browsed the bountiful stalls peddling a variety of butchered and cured meats, cheeses, produce, fish, and all sorts of confectionery, snacks, and spices. Masks were not mandatory, but virtually all the adults there wore them. I queued up at a vendor displaying heaping mounds of salty appetizers. The woman in front of me, making conversation with the merchant while he dished her olives, remarked that it wasn’t so uncomfortable to wear a mask and that she was happy to do it. It is necessary, the merchant responded: You wear yours for me, and I wear mine for you.
Île-de-France, the central French region that includes Paris, has accounted for a similarly disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations in its country as New York has in the United States, with a great many of those cases arising in nursing homes and the densely populated housing projects of the banlieues ringing the capital—inhabited overwhelmingly by ethnic minorities. Yet no equivalent discourse of righteous callousness has emerged anywhere on the French political spectrum. As early as March, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the xenophobic far-right National Rally party, said the initial confinement orders were “not sufficiently strict” and—in notable contrast to the anti-expertise fervor of the American right—demanded that the government hew more closely to the recommendations of its scientific counsel.
With the fifth-highest death tally and the twelfth-highest total number of cases in the world as of early June, France has handled the pandemic imperfectly at best. President Emmanuel Macron squandered several crucial weeks, failing to take decisive action while the virus ravaged Italy. He attended a theater performance and visited a retirement home while the number of coronavirus infections was doubling. When he finally acted, he sent conflicting messages, shuttering schools, restaurants, and cafés while simultaneously urging citizens to mass together and vote in local elections. Dozens of lawsuits and criminal complaints have been filed against the administration for its negligence. Other problems predate Macron. For a wealthy nation with a world-class health care system, there has been a surprising shortage of test kits and ventilators. “The government’s flip-flopping policies on past pandemics had left a once formidable national stockpile of face masks nearly depleted,” the New York Times reported.
Officials had also outsourced the manufacturing capacity to replenish that stockpile to suppliers overseas, despite warnings since the early 2000s about the rising risks of global pandemics.
As many Trump apologists are quick to point out, France’s death rate has been higher than that of the United States. Yet France enacted one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, one that not just flattened but nearly crushed the curve of new infections, from a high-water mark of 7,578 new cases on March 31 to just 240 on May 23. (The number of new U.S. cases on May 24 was 20,286.)
Although the French value their liberty as much as Americans, France is a country still able to recall what collective sacrifice entails, and this no doubt helped the nation accept the lockdown. The seventy-fifth commemoration of V-E Day has made it impossible not to glance next door and make comparisons with Europe’s other power center. With a population that is larger than France’s by sixteen million, and a nearly identical number of total cases, hovering around 180,000, Germany has experienced some 20,000 fewer deaths (100 per million) and has administered three times as many tests. Chancellor Angela Merkel has been the model of executive poise and leadership, while allowing regional officials to guide the country’s rapid testing program. And in contrast to the United States, there have been no desperate scenes of Germany’s Ministerpräsidenten taking to Twitter or television to plead with their chancellor for medical supplies.
Yet it would be too easy to paint Germany as the anti–United States, a blessed and orderly society where science, reason, and a politics of cooperation and goodwill prevail. As Germany has reopened, a loony and cynical hodgepodge of anti-vaxxers, neo-Nazis, and anti-capitalists have united in a nationwide protest movement, drawing thousands into the streets, and the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland party has sought to capitalize on the discontent. Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister, joked that the public should “keep a lot more than just a 1.5-meter distance” from conspiracy theorists, but the fact remains that the coronavirus has sparked a transatlantic rallying cry for extremists. Scenes of protest are playing out in cities from Zurich to Los Angeles, one of the firmer indications that the occidental body politic remains vulnerable to an even more threatening contagion—Trumpism is but the most ostentatious symptom—for which we have yet to find a cure.
For a period in April and May, during the eight-week national quarantine to which the French population pragmatically, untheatrically adhered, I became mildly obsessed with the White House’s coronavirus press briefings—a grotesquely transfixing spectacle. Clips of the president speaking about COVID-19 were spliced up and disseminated around the globe for giggles and likes on social media. I have a small, uninfluential Instagram account that my wife insists be private since I share pictures of our children, but I found myself nonetheless laboring to record and comment on my own highlight reels of Donald Trump behind the lectern, a snake-oil salesman formulating undiagrammable sentences, extolling the virtues of unproven and lethal substances in one breath, lamenting the epistemological consequences of widespread testing in the next. I would post these clips as Instagram Stories for my thousand or so followers to watch.
These posts were, in part, an expression of schadenfreude at my home country’s travails, but I think they were also a sincere expression of empathy and concern during a terribly confusing global crisis. I was under no illusion that I was somehow affecting the discourse in any important fashion, yet this gratuitous, restricted drop in the bucket of disapproving resistance somehow felt more meaningful to me than the times I attempted to join the chorus inveighing against the president more publicly on Twitter.
It has been a jarring ordeal over the past three and a half years to witness the debasement of the United States from across the Atlantic. When I first moved to Paris, nearly a decade ago, the French admiration for Barack Obama—and, by extension, all of America—felt ennobling. People seemed to believe that in at least one important sense American exceptionalism was real; flawed as the United States might have been, it really did possess a singular—and singularly inspiring—ability to rise above and correct its most heinous and dehumanizing chapters. The French equivalent of an Obama—a brilliant and charismatic Algerian politician assuming the presidency, for example—was a total impossibility, my French friends would say.
The way these same friends and others speak to me about my native country today is different. There is none of that admiration and wistful longing capable of provoking critical self-reflection. There is not even the spiteful fear of an unpredictable superpower, as in the George W. Bush era. All that has been replaced by bafflement, repulsion, exasperation, anger, amazement, and now—during the novel coronavirus outbreak, an event that has made country-by-country comparisons not just tempting but inevitable—something that feels very much like pity. And then there is a whole lot of mockery too.
It’s not just Trump. American society, as glimpsed from afar, has revealed itself to be ailing and fragile and perhaps even incapable of coalescing to meet such large-scale challenges. There have been extraordinary acts of courage and self-sacrifice in the United States, as there have been everywhere during the pandemic, and there has been exemplary leadership at the state and local levels, if not from the federal government. But these rays of light have only stood in contrast to something much darker: a warped and disintegrating notion of individualistic freedom, the liberty to abstain from contributing to the common good, which amounts to a sadomasochistic obsession with refusing to be told what to do.
On Sunday, May 24, under the headline u.s. deaths near 100,000, an incalculable loss, the New York Times devoted its entire front page to listing the names of a thousand victims of COVID-19, culled from death notices across the country, just 1 percent of the exorbitant death toll. That same weekend, a two-minute video montage compiled by a Twitter account calling itself Colombian Prince circulated widely. In the video, a variety of customers at restaurants and shops across the United States—they are all white, mostly women, sometimes calm and methodical but sometimes vibrating with animalistic rage—cough, sneeze, and spit in the faces of waiters, cashiers, and other service workers (mostly these men and women are also white, but not always). Some of the assailants refer to a kind of birthright “freedom” as a justification for their violence: they cannot accept being told to wear a mask. Their indignation at being asked to make the most minimal effort to help protect their fellow countrymen is as astonishing as it is appalling.
None of this—not the abysmal magnitude of life lost to COVID-19 or the despicable smallness that has so often defined the reaction—has settled in properly, because our attention has shifted to the open-air, daytime murder of an unarmed forty-six-year-old named George Floyd, in Minneapolis. Another morbid spectacle, another video gone viral, this time of a handcuffed black man begging for his life for nearly ten minutes as a white police officer buries a knee in his neck in front of uniformed colleagues, who remain silent, and civilian onlookers, who plead with the officer to relent.
Days later, as a result of severe underlying conditions, American cities were burning and Trump was tweeting. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he threatened. Meanwhile, the coronavirus continues its indefatigable onslaught, with infection rates rising in more than a dozen states. In a host of varied and interconnected ways, the United States appears to be anything but healthy.