How the U.S. and Britain struggled to fight coronavirus

There are, of course, important caveats when measuring national pandemic body counts. Each country tabulates its coronavirus fatalities differently, which means that what gets categorized as a coronavirus-related death varies. The White House is also quick to focus on per capita death rates, pointing to the United States’ much larger population when compared with Europe’s worst-hit countries.

Still, the United States and Britain stand as the two nations where the coronavirus has killed the most people. And the worst does not appear to be over in either country, with experts predicting the possibility of thousands of deaths per day into the summer. For all the talk of the special bonds that unite both countries, this is the ignominious honor they now share in the age of the pandemic.

We have a pretty clear sense of what went wrong. In both countries, leaders in charge took an initially lax approach to the looming threat. In late February, President Trump exulted that hardly anyone in the United States had succumbed to the virus and that it would fade, “like a miracle,” in the warmer months to come. Now he seems to have accepted a fatality count of more than 100,000 people, a loss of life that may be greater than the last half-century of American casualties in war.

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson first embraced the concept of “herd immunity,” eschewing the more draconian measures that his European counterparts had enacted by late February. Only when scientists in London put forward dire projections, warning of a quarter of a million deaths, did Johnson’s government change course and enforce restrictions and social distancing. But the damage was done, infections soared, and the prime minister himself spent time in intensive care after contracting the virus.

The key issue bedeviling both countries has been testing and tracing. Although Trump touts America’s ramped-up operation, it is still inadequate, and months of delays and shortages made it impossible to control the spread of the virus. And the president — who is bent on “reopening” the country to revive a faltering economy, no matter the advice of public health officials — has voiced concerns about the optics of registering more confirmed infections. “In a way, by doing all this testing we make ourselves look bad,” he said this week.

The pandemic exposed preexisting conditions in both countries. In Britain, the beloved National Health Service has felt the pinch of years of austerity, with front-line medical workers complaining of drastic shortages in protective gear. In the United States, the thinness of the social safety net compelled millions to keep working even if it came at the cost of their health. And, as in other parts of the world, minorities and the poor have suffered disproportionately in both countries; blacks in Britain are four times as likely to die of the coronavirus as whites, according to new data.

And then there’s the politics. In the United States, the pandemic is being experienced through a partisan lens, with polls showing the president’s supporters less concerned than his opponents about the outbreak. Six months from the presidential election, Trump continues to attack the media and blame rivals for the country’s travails.

But that approach has its limits, especially as Trump eases shutdown measures. “Unlike the press, the coronavirus cannot be browbeaten. Unlike whistleblowing officials, it cannot be fired or demoted,” wrote the Atlantic’s Helen Lewis. “The virus does not care if you imply that it is unpatriotic. It is not diverted by untested cures, or dangerous ones you just invented. It does not read Twitter.”

Britain, deeply divided on all sorts of issues, has not seen the same kind of polarization during the pandemic. “Apolitical institutions like the monarchy are proving their worth in a time of crisis; the home front and Blitz spirit are powerful forces in the country’s collective memory,” wrote Oliver Wiseman in Politico. “Britain’s free-at-the-point-of-use health care system has proved a rallying point during the crisis. These institutions have glued Britain’s political tribes together in trying times.”

Johnson’s government “can at least show a modicum of human empathy for those who’ve lost loved ones, a feat that continues to elude Trump,” wrote Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland. “They have at least — eventually — united behind a coherent ‘stay home’ message, rather than undermining that advice at every turn.”

In both countries, nationalist politicians often pander to founding values of individual liberty above all else. That dogmatism proved deadly in the pandemic.

“The myth of a unique and defining love of personal freedom as a badge of nationhood underpinned a profound reluctance to impose life-saving restrictions on movement and social gatherings,” wrote the Irish commentator Fintan O’Toole, reacting to Johnson’s late March celebration of the “ancient, inalienable right” for Britons to go to pubs. The same could easily be said of the unwillingness of many officials in the United States to implement lockdowns.

“Other people might put up with that sort of thing, but not the English,” O’Toole added. “On the altar of this exceptionalism, lives have been sacrificed.”

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