Why Did the United States Struggle to Stop COVID-19?
Image Source: Ms. Magazine
The United States has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, this much is uncontroversial. Since the pandemic’s inception in the US, there have been twenty-eight million confirmed cases of the virus and almost half a million deaths. These totals are especially devastating when considering recently released data suggests that as many as forty percent of the nearly half a million deaths were avoidable. Clearly, the United States has the resources and infrastructure to have prevented such an outcome. After all, the US is the wealthiest country in the world, so surely the government could have raised more financial capital from its citizens to stave off the pandemic. Especially in the wake of overwhelmed hospitals and personal protective equipment shortages. With new infections trending down significantly over the past two weeks, it appears that the worst of the pandemic may be in the past. But the question remains as to why the United States could not stop the pandemic at its worst; the answer to this question may lie in an often-overlooked aspect of American political society.
United States citizens regularly use the term “liberty” in their daily political discourse. However, only a fraction of citizens uses the term in its correct context. Many believe that the terms “rights” and “liberties” are one in the same, this belief could not be more mistaken. A “right” refers to certain good or service that a government is obligated to make accessible for its citizens. Examples of “rights” include a right to food, decent standard living, or education. A “liberty” is an aspect of society that a government is obligated to defend and protect so that its citizens may exercise said aspect freely. Examples of “liberties” include the freedom of speech, religion, or the right to bear arms. Throughout the entire history of United States political culture, civil liberties are emphasized and prioritized while rights are relegated to periphery.
Some may be a bit taken aback by this point, but it can be easily supported by reviewing the country’s revered guiding document: the Constitution. The addendum of the ten amendments, referred to by James Madison as a “Bill of Rights” is actually a bill of liberties. The document clearly defines the areas that the government cannot infringe upon and what aspects of society that the government must swear to uphold. This misnaming has caused many, mostly United States citizens, to associate certain provisions as “rights” when, in actuality, these provisions are almost always liberties. Indeed, the United States is a world leader of providing civil liberties for its citizens, but it is not, as many Americans believe, a leader in civil rights.
To further support this argument, one need not look any further than daily political discourse in the United States. The prevailing doctrine has always been that of the “American dream” and avoiding “hand-outs.” Americans have always been aversive of government intervention and support more “freedoms,” which explains why the United States is one of the last developed nations yet to enact universal healthcare and tuition free public university education.
As it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States may have responded so disastrously because of its political culture. Early into the pandemic, it became clear that the most effective public health practices were to limit crowded, indoor gatherings, enforce mask mandates, and maintain a physical distance of six feet between individuals. Many countries quickly solidified such policies into national law, some even going as far as enforcing such measures with prison sentences.
The United States, however, has never enacted any such policy into its federal code. It seems sensible to argue that the United States avoided such policies because they contradict the country’s political philosophy of upholding civil liberties wherever possible. Requiring that citizens wear masks, avoid certain types of establishments, or stay physically apart from others may be viewed as an overly intrusive government action in the United States that would not be seen as such in most other nations. This reasoning would also explain why the United States has been relatively slow at the national level to develop a response to the pandemic. Other nations have provided masks directly to citizens and much more considerable economic relief for furloughed workers than the two previously passed Congressional packages. Providing particular resources directly to citizens would imply certain “rights,” to which the United States’ aversion has already been discussed.
With the pandemic potentially winding down, perhaps the unnecessarily large death toll in the United States will wind down with it. While this article is not meant to assess the effectiveness of the United States’ pandemic response, hopefully this analysis into US political culture provides some insight for those who may find American politics bewildering. Most importantly, let this pandemic serve as a case study in United States domestic policy to show the importance of balancing civil liberties with civil rights in order to save the lives of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.
Originally published at http://thecentralpost.org.