America’s COVID response was always doomed to fail

coronavirus protest
People protest at Washington's capitol building against the state's extended stay-at-home order on April 19, 2020.
  • The US response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been a disaster compared to other nations.
  • This is because our political system values economic output over all other considerations, including public health.
  • Leaders in other countries, like New Zealand, have shown how to prioritize public health and have been politically rewarded.
  • But given our system, public opinion that favors public health priorities has been swamped by economic concerns among our political leaders.
  • George Pearkes is the Global Macro Strategist for Bespoke Investment Group.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

With COVID-19 continuing to ravage the United States and hundreds of thousands of Americans dead,  the question of why the country failed to contain the various has become a focus. That question is especially troubling given the range of countries around the world have proven successful at both preventing its arrival and containing any outbreaks that do crop up. 

It's popular, depending on your political orientation, to blame the president, or China, or victims of the pandemic themselves. But the disastrous impact of the pandemic is far more likely a product of structural forces in American society than who sits in the White House or where the virus originated.

America's response to COVID — and especially the apparent disconnect between public opinion and policies delivered to fight the pandemic — is a function of pre-COVID political economy and the way our society is organized.

Priorities matter

America's political institutions (broadly defined as those institutions which allow power to be exercised by one group over another) have become tightly focused on a single goal: maximizing income or economic output. 

Governors, businesses, civic organizations, and entire academic disciplines have accepted the idea that a cost-benefit analysis based on some measure of material well-being is by far the best — if not only — way to measure the validity of a given policy.

Put another way, American institutions value increasing GDP over other metrics of well-being.

This is not a value-neutral choice, but an expression of what our political process values. Relatively similar societies like Australia or New Zealand have opted to make a different choice during the COVID pandemic. 

In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Arden is expected to cruise to reelection this week as polls suggest her left-leaning Labour Party will win almost half the country's votes. That would be a vast improvement over the 37% Labour garnered in 2017. 

New Zealand does have some unique advantages when it comes to containing COVID, such as its relatively small population, island geography, and well-developed public health infrastructure. But the country has also taken an exceptionally aggressive approach to imposing lockdowns that prevent community spread. 

"Level 4" lockdowns require residents to stay at home unless they're an essential worker, buying food, or briefly exercising outdoors. The use of lockdowns both locally and nationally have resulted in incredible suppression of COVID-19. Kiwis have suffered less than 400 cases per million population in total over the course of the pandemic. For the US, that many cases are currently being reported every three days!

In Australia, the Liberal/National coalition run by Prime Minister Scott Morrison has similarly been much less afraid to ask citizens to shutter themselves at home and as a result only about 1% of the Australian population has tested positive over the course of the pandemic. While one recent poll shows faltering support, through August the Liberal/National coalition's share of polling had risen about 4 points and swung them into the lead versus Australia's Labor party, the opposite of where things sat in February.

Less-developed economies that also pursued aggressive lockdowns have also come out with extremely low case count numbers. The best example may be Mongolia. Neighboring China's ferocious reaction to the initial outbreak meant over half a billion domestic travellers were able to freely move around the country during the recent Golden Week holiday

Public opinion versus public institutions 

Sitting in North Carolina, these results are hard to believe. My state saw armed bands parade in the capital city over a stay-at-home order. This week, federal authorities indicted a gang that was planning to kidnap the governors of Michigan and Virginia, in large part as a reaction against those state's policies for containing the spread of COVID.

Based on news reports, it would seem like Americans are more than willing to suffer public health consequences in order to keep the economy moving. But looking at public polling, this sort of backlash to lockdown orders is a minority position.

During the height of lockdowns during April, Americans were more worried about about restrictions being lifted too quickly than not fast enough by a 2-to-1 margin, and Morning Consult data found that through early October more than half of adults think the US government isn't doing enough to address the COVID outbreak. That included majorities of all income brackets, non-whites, Christians, suburbanites, the self-employed, and military households.

Despite strong evidence that Americans want outcomes that look more like the New Zealand model, our political infrastructure focused on minimizing any cost to economic activity rather than public health outcomes. 

The impact of lockdowns or other restrictions on consumers and businesses aren't somehow larger in the United States than other countries. But the preferences of businesses and certain groups of consumers receive much more weight here.

States like Arizona, Texas, and Florida initially kept case growth under control initially but a rush to reopen for the summer sent new cases per capita into a range that few countries around the world have endured. The federal government's response has been at best haphazard, and at worst in total denial of the epidemic.

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As things currently stand, voters in aggressive response countries like New Zealand and Australia appear to support the decisions their elected leaders have made. While Americans generally appear to be in favor of a more aggressive response here, our political system is failing to make the hard decisions and deliver the outcome public opinion what it wants.

Of course, the US is not alone in its failure to deal with COVID. UK new cases are now rising faster relative to population than American new cases did at their summer peak, while polities in Europe ranging from the Czech Republic to Spain have seen huge surges in cases this fall.

The UK is an instructive example of another country with political institutions which seemingly fail to deliver what public opinion wants, and not just over COVID.

After Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron set up a referendum on Brexit to protect his party from defections to the UK Independence Party, Leave unexpectedly won in 2016 and triggered years of disputes over how to move forward that did not neatly break down along existing UK political party lines. The country is still trying to reach an internal consensus over how to manage its departure from the EU after multiple elections ostensibly framed on the question of how to get Brexit done.

COVID and Brexit are very different challenges, but in both instances existing UK institutions have been put under pressure to mediate what different political actors have wanted; that's ultimately been the challenge for the US as well.

Eventually the virus will become less salient in day-to-day headlines, but the US will still be left with the challenge of political institutions which don't represent popular will. The geographic bias of the US Senate, lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court, or the two party system itself are further examples of this disconnect at play.

Luckily, both the US and UK have systems designed to be plastic. Americans have rewritten their Constitution seventeen times since Madison shepherded the Bill of Rights in 1789. Specific institutions are even more open to change, such as the Senate's majority rules maintained by the body itself.

Across the pond, the UK doesn't even have a formal written constitution to constrain reimagination of political institutions. There is nothing permanent about the political structures which govern either country. 

The question is whether popular will is strong enough to realize that what's broke needs fixing.

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