The United States has surpassed the painful milestone of 100,000 deaths due to the coronavirus pandemic.
On Dec. 31, 2019, Iraqi protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, wildfires raged across Australia, the fugitive auto executive Carlos Ghosn took refuge in Lebanon, and President Donald Trump, facing the start of his impeachment trial, held court at an annual New Year’s Eve party at his Mar-a-Lago resort.
The same day, in a development that barely seemed to register in the United States, Chinese officials in Wuhan confirmed dozens of cases of what appeared to be pneumonia, origins unknown. But the cause soon became clear: an outbreak of a new coronavirus and the ruthless disease it causes, COVID-19.
The first recorded fatality from the coronavirus in the United States, that of a man in his 50s in Washington state whose death was confirmed on Feb. 29, intensified concerns about the outbreak. Inside the offices of NBC News, the coronavirus had all but announced itself as the defining storyline of the year, and I began overseeing our 24/7 liveblog of daily news updates.
It soon became clear that COVID-19 would be an epochal chapter for the country. You could argue the realization dawned on March 11, with three developments: The World Health Organization declared that the coronavirus was now a pandemic; the NBA suspended its season after a player tested positive; and the American everyman Tom Hanks and his wife, actress Rita Wilson, announced that they, too, had COVID-19.
The coronavirus had now infected popular consciousness. It could not be ignored. [..]
It seems clear, by now, that the nation’s supply of masks, ventilators, hospital beds and other key tools was initially woefully inadequate. (NBC News has reported extensively on problems in the federal supply chain.) It is distressing but perhaps not altogether surprising that the ostensibly richest, most technologically advanced country on earth was caught flat-footed.
The deficiencies of America’s response to the crisis have put a spotlight on a wide array of structural inequalities and systemic issues, many of which predated Trump’s tenure in office. The coronavirus outbreak, not unlike the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, has exposed a sad and infuriating underside to the supposed progress of the 21st century.
African Americans have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, in part because of systematic disparities in access to health care and housing. Many parts of rural America face crumbling infrastructure and lack of local medical care. The already fragile American middle class, still reeling from the late-2000s housing crash and global financial crisis, seems to teeter on the brink of despair.
The country’s most vulnerable populations, especially impoverished people of color and the uninsured with serious pre-existing health conditions, oftentimes pay a grave cost because of the institutional status quo.
In truth, no country mustered a perfect response to the outbreak, to the extent perfection is even attainable for a virus so stubborn, relentless and deadly. But as we mourn the 100,000 Americans who have been taken from us, it may be worth considering all the ways we — our government and its citizens — might have acted sooner.
In the meantime — amid the memorials, the virtual funerals, the fond remembrances, the touching tributes, the millions rushing to do their part, the millions struggling to stay afloat, and the political chaos that seems to overshadow it all — a simple truth has emerged:
America now sees itself far more clearly, for better or worse, and that clarity will determine how it rebuilds its future.