I’m sitting in a public park, because for the last six days, I have not had electricity in my home. I live across the Connecticut River from the mid-size American city of Hartford, Connecticut.
My house is dark and hot. It is mid-August and by the end of the day the temperature inside my home will probably reach close to 90F. With luck, I am told by my local utility, my power will be restored by noon tomorrow, a full week since it was lost (As it turned out, I did have to wait the full seven days).
More than 500,000 people lost power in Connecticut at the beginning of August as the outer edge of Tropical Storm Isaias brushed the state. We knew it was coming for at least a week in advance. When it got here, the storm’s winds lashed the state for about five hours.
I will not waste your time complaining about the poor planning of my local utility company. Plenty of people are doing that. But I am concerned about how this experience adds to my growing feeling that America is not working the way it should. Something is wrong.
A former colleague of mine once complained to me that others we were working with at the time had “no sense of urgency.” It is a phrase that has stuck with me for years and seems appropriate to the life we are living today in the United States.
I am not sure what is driving it. Maybe the independence we have all developed, as individuals, through our use of the internet, and portable communication devices like smart phones, has broken down our sense of community. Maybe our institutions have grown to be so big that they are unmanageable and unable to react to crises with any degree of nimbleness. Perhaps our politics have become so polarized that we can’t rely on government to be a stabilizing force when all else fails.
Maybe it is a combination of all of the above.
The best illustration of the problem is the U.S. response to the Coronavirus. We have utterly failed when many other countries have succeeded in mitigating the spread of the disease. If the United States is an exceptional nation, we should be leading the way in the control, treatment and eradication of the virus. Instead we are trailing the world and, as a result, our economy is suffering, our children are suffering, because they are being denied a quality education, and it may take ten years to fully recover from this failure to meet the challenge of the moment.
At this writing (August 10), America has recorded 163,000 deaths and more than five million Covid-19 cases. By the time you read this, it is likely we will be nearing 175,000 deaths, and by Election Day, it is completely conceivable that more than 200,000 Americans will have died of the virus since March. Most of the victims had every reason to believe they would see Christmas 2020, as the year began.
When the Coronavirus first began making news, in late December of 2019 and January of this year, it was mostly portrayed in the American news media as a curious mystery occurring in a city in China. The chance of it coming to the United States was real, but no more so than being attacked by a great white shark off the coast of Maine.
I was in South America at the time, at the tail end of a journey around the world. Having spent the previous four months in airports, in about a dozen different countries, I had a heightened awareness that it would only be a matter of time before the virus hitting China would end up in the United States. We are all interconnected. During normal times, there are people constantly flying between the United States and China, or China, some third country, and our own. It does not take an infectious disease expert to know this. Any member of the Delta Miles program could make this observation and take appropriate precautions.
We were recently told, by a leading member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force (which is doing a terrific job by the way) that the disease has now reached a new level in the United States, spreading, uncontrolled, through both urban and rural areas. This too, was entirely predictable in the absence of a stringent, nationwide program, to isolate the virus. Just as it was predictable that someone would carry the virus from China to America, it is equally predictable that without an effort to stop its internal spread, someone would carry the disease from say, New York to Nebraska, or Mississippi, or Alabama.
Just as my local power company failed to adequately plan for a storm it saw coming on radar, we, as a country, have failed to manage Covid-19 and will be paying for it for years in terms of lives, careers, education, and businesses interrupted. But both these cases seem to only be symptoms of a larger American problem.
When, in America, did it become so hard for our political leaders to agree on anything? They can’t even agree right now that unemployed Americans should get unemployment benefits. When did it become so hard, in America, to carry out an election? When did all the major institutions of our country become too big to fail, too big to succeed, or too big to be held accountable?
In August, for the first time in known history, a woman was attacked and killed by a great white shark off the coast of central Maine. I don’t point to this tragedy as a sign of the apocalypse, but only as an illustration that all our preconceived beliefs about what is reliable and what is not reliable in our daily lives is under attack. Nothing truly surprises us anymore because we keep falling lower and lower as a nation. The United States is no longer at the top of the food chain, rather we are seen as prey by nation’s that once looked up to us.
Halfway through 2020, is it so hard to believe that our growing list of national failures, is not a sign of deeper fundamental problems? Our place at the top of the list of countries incapable of managing the Coronavirus, pushes us down on the list of nations others strive to emulate. When did the word “exceptional” cease to be an American virtue and become a sad description of a nation in decline?