In early accounts, the SARS-CoV-2 virus was often referred to as the “Wuhan virus” for its emergence near that city. Later, Republicans began calling it the “Chinese virus,” because nothing goes with the fear generated by a pandemic quite like a side order of xenophobia. But when the world looks back on the history of the 2019-2020 novel coronavirus pandemic, it seems increasingly like China will be little more than a footnote. The same applies to countries like South Korea and Iran, which emerged as secondary epicenters. As the World Health Organization reported on Monday, 85% of new cases of COVID-19 weren’t anywhere in Asia. They were in Europe and the United States, and increasingly the United States is taking over as the worldwide driver of the pandemic.
Thanks to despicably poor preparation, criminally slow testing, and an unwillingness to accept the steps taken elsewhere, the United States is well on its way to becoming not just the major global hotspot for COVID-19, but the major source of infection that threatens the rest of the planet.
In the early stages of the 2019 novel coronavirus’ emergence, any case that appeared elsewhere was seldom more than a single step removed from someone who had been to Hubei province in China. When secondary hotspots emerged, Italy became the primary source of new cases from Bosnia to Brazil. As one of the world’s great tourist destinations—and with a display of reluctance when it came to getting their testing program in place—Italy swiftly became an export center for COVID-19 cases that appeared, not just in Europe, but in dozens of countries around the planet.
Neither of these things are the case today. China has reduced its number of active cases to fewer than 5,000, all of them still in isolation. It’s done this so effectively that it went four days in a row without a single homegrown case reported (though that streak ended on Monday). Likewise, South Korea has seen over a third of all cases there move to recovery, with around 5,000 active cases in isolation.
Italy remains an international tragedy. The over 69,000 confirmed cases there mean that just over 0.1% of the population have been confirmed as having COVID-19. And rather than producing recovered cases, what Italy is manufacturing in sickening quantities is deaths. The 6,820 deaths already recorded in Italy are more than twice the total that China recorded … and Italy is still a long, long way from bringing the situation there under control. The tough suppression measures have finally been in place long enough that they should begin to demonstrate an effect in the next week, but with cases still flooding into hospitals that are far beyond their bearing capacity, the grim statistics from Italy can be expected to continue for some time.
But Italy is all but shut down, and transportation in and out of the country is now minimal. It’s not the nation that now threatens China with reinfection and threatens the rest of the planet with additional cases. That would be the United States.
As Reuters reports, the World Health Organization has singled out the United States as a unique threat. The U.S. has a very large outbreak, a series of very uneven regulations from state to state, and a White House that is expressing more concern over market falls than overcrowded hospitals. No other nation on the planet is adding cases like the United States.
At one point the United States was thought to be “a week behind” most of the European nations. In fact, Donald Trump used the growth of COVID-19 in Europe to justify flight restrictions even to nations where the total number of cases could be measured on two hands. The ridiculousness of that effort is now evident, as the U.S. surges past every other nation. With over 50,000 active cases, the United States is not even a day behind Italy. It may not pass Italy in total cases on Wednesday, but it will certainly exceed the number of active cases in that nation, because the epidemic in Italy grew more slowly than that in the United States. Over 8,000 people in Italy have now recovered from COVID-19. In the U.S., the growth has been so incredibly quick that official recoveries still number fewer than 500.
Don’t be deceived by the slight downward bend at the end of the line for the United States. The information on that final point represents only about half a day. There seems little doubt that before the end of day, the U.S. will add thousands of additional cases.
In comparing the United States to Italy, some pundits seek comfort in pointing out that the United States has almost five times Italy’s population. But this doesn’t mean we can absorb five times as many cases before our healthcare system collapses. For one thing, the United States has fewer hospital beds available than Italy. And those beds are much more unevenly distributed over a vastly larger piece of geography. Many areas of the United States will be under stress well before they’re hit the density of cases now found in Italy.
But what’s even more shocking is that China has over four times the population of the United States. When it comes to the number of cases/the size of the population, the United States is already far, far ahead of where China was at the peak of the first epidemic. It’s only the fact that the cases are distributed across many states, and not all concentrated in one spot, that has kept the healthcare system from already failing on a regional level.
The last great pandemic, the 1918-1919 “Spanish Flu” did not begin in Spain. In all likelihood, it began in Kansas. It was spread to Europe by U.S. troops entering World War I, and from there made its way around the planet. That spread was assisted by secrecy, especially in the U.S., where the just-passed Sedition Act prevented accurate reporting on either the prevalence or severity of the disease.
The United States got out of the blame for that one because Spain dared to allow the press to accurately record what was happening there. The 2019 novel coronavirus did first emerge in China, and it definitely got a boost because of censorship in that nation, despite the valiant efforts of those like 34-year-old Dr. Li Wenliang who got the word out before the coronavirus led to his own death. But China appears to be successful in fighting the infection there, while the United States seems utterly ineffectual in halting the lightening growth here. At this point, there’s no doubt about which nation is more dangerous to the rest of the world.