The 590,000 lives lost are not just numbers - What happened to US COVID response?
Published: Jun 03, 2021 10:13 PM
Photo: VCG

Photo: VCG

In the global fight against COVID-19, the US, the world's largest economy with strong capabilities in scientific research and industrial production, and a self-proclaimed "beacon of democracy," has shocked the world with its poor performance. As of 27 May, Johns Hopkins University's statistics show that the US ranks first in the world with more than 33 million cumulative confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over 590,000 cumulative deaths. With less than 5 percent of the global population, the US accounts for nearly one fifth of confirmed cases and 16.9 percent of deaths worldwide. A recent analysis report released by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) of the University of Washington estimates the actual number of COVID-19 deaths in the US exceeds 900,000, far higher than the official figure. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on May 9 that the figure of 900,000 is "a bit more than I would have thought" but there is "no doubt" the US has been underestimating its number of deaths from COVID-19.

Despite speeded up vaccination, the situation in the US remains worrisome. In late February, deaths from COVID-19 topped 500,000, more than the combined death toll of World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War. The US health experts and officials have admitted that the country is faced with the fourth wave of infections. The Guardian reported on April 16 that at least 21 US states had seen a 10 percent or more increase in new COVID-19 cases diagnosed daily. 

Young people make up a growing share of new cases in the US. In March 2021, New Jersey saw a 31-percent jump in COVID-19 hospitalizations among young people aged 20 to 29, and the number of those aged 40 to 49 soared by 48 percent. reported that roughly one in every five US respondents said they had lost a friend or family member to COVID-19. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said at a White House briefing that the situation felt like "impending doom" and "I'm scared."

During the pandemic, many ordinary Americans have lost their jobs and are living in dire straits, widening the gap between rich and poor. According to a research by the University of Chicago, the US poverty rate rose to 11.7 percent in March, the highest since the start of the pandemic, with the African-American poverty rate about twice the overall rate. Data from shows that, as of April 19, nearly 40 percent of the nation's unemployed had been out of work for more than six and a half months. FeedingAmerica reports that by the end of 2020, one in every six Americans and one in every four American children faced the threat of hunger, a 50-percent increase from the previous year.

The US society and the international community have criticized and reflected on the US government's ineffectiveness in fighting the pandemic and the systemic problems behind it, saying that the root cause of the current situation in the US is political division and manipulation. Some politicians have used the pandemic to seek their own agenda, putting politics above science and party interests before the interests of the people, creating chaos at many levels in the fight against the virus, which has cost the American people dearly and caused serious disruption and damage to the international cooperation on COVID-19 response.

Ignoring the science

For many months after the outbreak of the pandemic, the White House downplayed the threat of the virus. Public health officials and experts had to find a "tricky balance" between performing their duties honestly and transparently and adapting to the "fickle" administration. According to timelines published in The New York Times and Washington Post, the then US President Donald Trump repeatedly issued false information to mislead the public, claiming that the coronavirus was the "kung flu," the risk of infection and mortality rate were "very low" and that the pandemic would disappear "like a miracle." All these contradicted the prevention and control information released by US public health institutions and experts. US journalist Michelle Goldberg once said, "the Trump administration's disdain for expertise, its elevation of slavish loyalty over technical competence, has become a more immediate threat." A New York Times article cited economic concerns as the main reason for the federal government's marginalization of scientists, claiming that "federal policy has been shaped to favor short-term economic gain at the expense of public health."

A Cornell University study concluded that "the president of the US was the single largest driver of misinformation around COVID" and that he "comprised 37.9% of the overall misinformation conversation." The website PoliFact awarded the "Lie of the Year" for 2020 to the claims that "deny, downplay or disinform about COVID-19," and criticized the US government for deliberately downplaying the threat, lying about caseloads, and providing misinformation about the origin of the virus, hospitalization and vaccine supply.

Politics first

Under the US federal system, response to the pandemic is fragmented. Each state fights on its own, with policy foot-stomping and competition for supplies occurring frequently, giving the virus opportunities to spread. Anthony Fauci said that when the country is clearly divided, it becomes extremely difficult to solve public health crises. "When public health issues become politically charged — like wearing a mask or not becomes a political statement — you can't imagine how destructive that is to any unified public health message." Fauci also stated that the previous administration had downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic and some states and cities, out of political motives, chose to ignore the importance of containment measures. Even at the height of the pandemic, some governors and mayors in the US still dismissed anti-pandemic protocols recommended by health experts. Eleven states, led by Texas, declared complete lift of lockdown and mask mandates and denounced federal anti-pandemic measures as meaningless. Los Angeles Times commented that the US states are now working on their own, rather than with a unified national strategy to contain the virus.

The pandemic coincided with the 2020 US presidential election. Election politics complicated the government response to the pandemic. reported that "During dueling appearances at a Capitol news briefing and in an interview with CNN, the Republican governor of Georgia and the Democratic mayor of the state's capital city, Atlanta, both accused the other's office of playing politics amid a pandemic that continues to ravage communities across Georgia." The Dean of the School of Public Health of Boston University indicated that party conflicts had prevented the US from discussing the risk of the pandemic in a rational manner. USA Today commented that "President Trump blamed blue states for increasing the nation's death rates from coronavirus, ignoring high rates in red states." The Democratic Party accused Trump of turning the tragedy into a political weapon and attributed the tragic deaths of American people to their trust of President Trump, while downplaying the problem of poor pandemic response in blue states. Bestselling author David Litt wrote, "that our government has failed to promote the public welfare during this crisis is a tragedy. But it's no surprise. From the way we manage elections to the way we fund campaigns, from the congressional districts we draw to the lobbyists we include in the policymaking process, the story is the same. The American republic is a government of fewer people, by fewer people, for fewer people than at any time in the past half-century. And We, the People, are suffering because of it."

Shifting blames and quitting international organizations

Some politicians in the Trump administration have repeatedly asserted that China was to blame for the outbreak of the pandemic. They have cooked up and spread conspiracy theories including the "lab leak theory," and even stigmatized China by inventing expressions such as "China virus" and "kung flu."

Yet, as CNN and Der Spiegel wrote, this type of rhetoric is apparently aimed at misleading domestic audiences and diverting blames for its own mishandling of the pandemic. According to a report last April, the US National Republican Senatorial Committee "has sent campaigns a detailed memo ... advising GOP candidates to address the coronavirus crisis by aggressively attacking China." The New York Times also revealed that "senior Trump administration officials have pushed American spy agencies to hunt for evidence to support an unsubstantiated theory that a government laboratory in Wuhan, China, was the origin of the coronavirus outbreak, which will distort assessments about the virus and that they could be used as a political weapon."

In July 2020, the US government officially informed the UN Secretary General of its decision to withdraw from the WHO. By withdrawing from the WHO at a critical juncture in the global fight against the virus, the US not only weakened its own efforts to address the pandemic, but also undermined global solidarity and created more obstacles to the global efforts against COVID-19. Senator Robert Menendez, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted that withdrawing from the WHO "won't protect American lives or interests" and only "leaves Americans sick and America alone." Elizabeth Cousens, President and CEO of the UN Foundation, said in her statement that "the WHO is the only body capable of leading and coordinating the global response to COVID-19" and that "terminating the US relationship would undermine the global effort to beat this virus — putting all of us at risk."

The US withdrawal also cast a political shadow over the scientific issue of origin-tracing. The Associated Press reported that "President Donald Trump spread a number of false and misleading claims" in his letter to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announcing the withdrawal. Trump asserted that the Chinese government "consistently ignored credible reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December 2019 or even earlier, including reports from The Lancet medical journal." However, according to The Lancet, such a report did not exist. As an analyst from the Russian think tank Valdai Discussion Club wrote, US "accusations against WHO unwittingly suggest thoughts of trying to find a 'scapegoat' against the background of the difficult epidemiological situation in America."

After announcing its return to the WHO this year, the US government openly gathered a handful of countries to question the research report issued by the joint China-WHO expert group on the origins of COVID-19, incited the media to challenge the scientific integrity of the experts involved, and falsely claimed that the Chinese government helped the WHO draft the report. This, as Russia's Zvezda TV commented, is a dirty political trick, for whatever the WHO conclusion might be, the US will always find a way to shift the blames on China. The most important thing for these countries, as the Russian media outlet observed, is to curb China's growth, given that China is now taking a more and more important position in the world. Russian newspaper Nezavissimaia Gazeta quoted the words of Alexey Maslov, Director of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, that the US needs to present solid evidence if it wants to hold China accountable since its own experts and those from other Western countries were involved in the study in Wuhan. Mr Maslov indicated that the US and some Western countries are using the pandemic to serve their political agenda, turning a blind eye to the fact that the number of infections and death toll in their countries are still on the rise.

Photo: VCG

Photo: VCG

Racial discrimination

COVID-19 has exacerbated systemic racial discrimination in the US. Data released at the beginning of this year by the American Public Media Research Lab shows that 1 in every 595 Native Americans and 1 in every 735 African Americans died from COVID-19, while for white Americans the average rate is only 1 in 1030. A study by JAMA Pediatrics suggests that as of February this year, 43,000 children in the US have lost at least one parent to COVID-19. The African American child population, which represents 14 percent of the total child population in the US, accounts for up to 20 percent of children who have lost at least one parent. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, minorities in the US receive far fewer vaccines than whites. Twenty-five percent of white Americans have received at least one dose of vaccine, while the figures for African Americans and Hispanics are merely 15 percent and 13 percent respectively. Vaccination sites, which are readily available in affluent white neighborhoods, are scarce in minority and low-income communities. As former US President Barack Obama pointed out, "A disease like this just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country." Obama added, "We see it in the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on our communities."

Due to the radical views preached by some public figures, the Asian American community has become the scapegoat for the poor COVID-19 response. US media reported that crimes against Asians surged nearly 150 percent in the US in 2020 and 883 percent in New York City. A report dated March 16 by Stop AAPI Hate shows that from March 19, 2020 to February 18, 2021, the organization received reports of a total of 3,795 hate incidents against Asian Americans, with Chinese Americans being the number one target and accounting for 42.2 percent of the victims. A survey by the Pew Research Center released on April 21 shows that 81 percent of Asian Americans and 56 percent of all Americans believe that violence against Asians is increasing. Of Asian Americans, 45 percent said they have experienced racial discrimination; 32 percent said they have feared being threatened or physically attacked; and 27 percent said they have been subject to verbal attacks using racially discriminatory and insulting words. Results of a Morning Consult survey on April 7 indicate that 63 percent of Chinese adult respondents say they have experienced racial discrimination and 53 percent of Asian respondents say that former President Donald Trump should be responsible for the discrimination they face.

Vaccine nationalism

The US is taking an "America First" approach to vaccine hoarding. The number of vaccines produced and purchased by the US has far exceeded the country's domestic needs. Tracing vaccine contracts worldwide, the Duke Global Health Innovation Center found that by January this year, the US had snapped up around 2.6 billion doses, accounting for about a quarter of the global total and nearly four times the amount needed by the US population of 330 million (based on two doses per person). However, according to the UK statistics company Airfinity, the US had loaned merely a token 4 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines to Mexico and Canada up to March 2021. Citing the CDC's tracking of COVID-19 vaccine distribution and inoculation, Bloomberg suggested that vaccine hoarding is a serious problem in many parts of the US, with about one third of vaccines left unused in some states. News website Axios commented that while several billion people around the world wait anxiously for vaccines, 30 million shots are sitting idly in Ohio warehouses.

In April 2020, the then US President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to put export controls on raw materials for vaccine production, which has remained effective to this day. To give an example of its impact, India has already authorized adenovirus vector vaccines, but due to US export controls, the lack of raw materials has seriously constrained the country's vaccine production capacity. The CEO of Serum Institute of India has tweeted a request to President Joe Biden to lift the embargo of raw material exports. Both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have expressed hope that the US will drop export restrictions on raw materials and vaccines. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has also said that the imposition of legal barriers by some countries is "putting lives at risk."


On 24 May 2020, when the US was reaching a grim milestone of 100,000 COVID-19 deaths, The New York Times devoted its entire front page to listing the names, ages and identities of 1,000 lives lost to the coronavirus. "They were not simply names on a list. They were us. Numbers alone could not measure the impact of the coronavirus on America, whether it is the number of patients treated, jobs interrupted or lives cut short."

One year later, with the death toll from COVID-19 in the US approaching 600,000, people couldn't but wonder: is this the way the US government plans to show the American people and the global community that it has passed the human rights test in this pandemic?