A million COVID deaths expose US systematic failures, as Americans call for more than flags at half-mast to save lives
Published: May 13, 2022 09:13 PM
Flags at the base of the Washington Monument fly at half-staff on May 12, 2022, as the US sees 1 million deaths from COVID-19. Photo: VCG

Flags at the base of the Washington Monument fly at half-staff on May 12, 2022, as the US sees 1 million deaths from COVID-19. Photo: VCG

As US President Joe Biden marked the tragic milestone of one million deaths from the coronavirus with flags at While House flown at half-staff, people in the US and globally are wondering: "How did the biggest power in the world end up with the largest number of deaths from coronavirus?" Slow response in the early stages, a failure of political leadership at all levels, the rise of populism and anti-intellectualism and deep-root racism … all combined to result in the horrific death toll in the US, which exposed the country's system failures, analysts said. 

On Thursday, Biden said the US was marking "a tragic milestone" and each death was "an irreplaceable loss." "One million empty chairs around the dinner table. Each an irreplaceable loss … Each leaving behind a family, a community and a nation forever changed because of this pandemic," he said. 

One million is not the only appalling number on the epidemic situation in the US. As of Thursday, the country has reported over 82 million COVID-19 cases. However, nearly 60 percent of the US population has been infected by COVID-19, and about three in four children and adolescents were found to have antibodies in the December 2021 to February 2022 study period, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since the first confirmed case was reported on January 21, 2020 in the US, it only took 27 months for the US to make the tally of deaths surpass one million - the highest in the world. 

The number of one million deaths came on the same day when the US was holding the Second COVID-19 Summit to reaffirm its "leadership" in the global fight against coronavirus. Observers said that such a tragic number just highlighted the US' incompetence in dealing with the pandemic since the beginning. And populism, anti-intellectualism and systemic racism presented alongside the epidemic in the US have also shocked the world, unveiling the deep failure of US' system.

At a press conference on Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the Washington National Cathedral rang a bell 1,000 times to commemorate the deaths, - this is for mourning and also for warning and questioning.

"In front of the pandemic, should politics or lives be prioritized? Which country is using human rights as slogan and which really cares about people's lives? The answer is clear," Zhao said. 

1 Million Graphic: Chen He/GT

1 Million Graphic: Chen He/GT

Systematic failure

By reviewing the timeline of its early response to the coronavirus, many epidemiological experts believe the Trump administration had missed a crucial period to put the epidemic under control and failed to take effective measures later on. 

For example, on January 21, 2020, the first US case was announced in Washington and meanwhile the WHO said the virus risk globally was high. However, when a reporter asked the then US president Donald Trump the next day, Trump said "we have it totally under control." Before announcing a national emergency on March 13, 2020, Trump had tried to downplay the coronavirus threat both on Twitter and in interviews. 

The following months in 2020 had witnessed unprecedent misinformation with experts busy debunking rumors, including Trump's suggestion that injecting disinfectant into the body could help cure COVID patients. 

The Democrats and some US media harshly criticized the Trump administration's disastrous response, however, some observers pointed out that the Biden administration has done no better than the Trump administration. In fact, 600,000 of the one million COVID-19 deaths had occurred after Biden took office.

One year after the Capitol Hill was stormed by Trump supporters, the US has continued to suffer from failing to properly handle the pandemic. Amid endless struggles between the left and the right, Biden has failed in curbing either the infections or the splitting of the US, or the rising populism and anti-intellectualism that hindered the US' COVID-19 prevention. 

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

For months since June 2021, protests against vaccinations, masks, and lockdowns erupted across the US, with angry Americans irately burning masks in the streets. And on the internet, they impugned medical experts who advocated for stricter measures to control the outbreak, even as their hometowns became COVID-19 hot spots.

The one million deaths reflect the failure of the US'  system, not just the failure of one or two presidents. The US' system lacks a strong ability to mobilize as the anti-epidemic fight does not only require advanced scientific and medical technologies and resources, but also a strong mobilization ability of the system to implement anti-epidemic measures, Lü Xiang, research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Friday.

Moreover, the US' system does not have the ability or space to reflect and reform itself. The US' partisan politics means that the politicians do not have long-term views or considerations when laying out policies, but only care about quarterly data, Lü explained, noting that such partisan politics also resulted in different states in the US conducting varying measures without a unified guideline.

The US' failed COVID-19 response also highlights its systematic racism, analysts said. Data from US CDC showed that black, Hispanic and Native American populations experienced higher rates of both infections and deaths, particularly in the early stages of the pandemic in 2020.

Due to the unequal access to medical resources, the numbers on deaths and infections among minorities in the US will still increase, analysts warned.

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The US government's policies give priority to saving the economy rather than saving lives, but the severest inflation in 40 years has demonstrated that the secondary disaster of the COVID-19 pandemic in economy is way more serious than they expected, experts said. 

"I can't see any plan Biden could make to prevent economic recession. More economic problems will come to the US," Lü said. 

Rather than taking responsibility for the failure in fighting the virus, the US government has tried to scapegoat China and shift public attention since the beginning of the pandemic to cover the facts and present a false peace that there could be more deaths and infections if it were not the "efforts" it made, which Lü described as the "biggest shame" in the US history.

Flying a flag at half-staff does no help to comfort those who have lost loved ones, Lü said.

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Moreover, one million may also not be the end and experts warned of more infections and deaths in the US given variants of the coronavirus. 

The US has transferred from "pandemic" to "endemic" with infections occurring within some regions, but the epidemic situation could become worse in the autumn and winter seasons. Given the decrease of vaccine efficiency as time passes by, more indoor activities in colder seasons and continuous appearances of new variants, a national wave of virus could sweep the US at any time, Chen Xi, an associate professor of public health at Yale University, told the Global Times.

The Biden administration also released a warning for possible 100 million new infections in the US in the coming autumn and winter and required more money from Congress to prepare. However, Chen noted that the two parties diverged on the issue and the Republics are unwilling to offer more money.

On Thursday and Friday, many Americans have poured their disappointment and criticism over the Biden administration's dealing with the epidemic on Biden's Tweet, in which he said in memory of the one million people, he ordered flags at the White House and other public buildings flown at half-staff.

A netizen wrote, "So, instead of actually doing anything to prevent or  more deaths, a flag is flown at half-mast? I am sure all the dead and mourning appreciate a flag... being flown at half-mast." 

Many overseas netizens retweeted one of Biden's posts of October 2020, in which he said "220,000 deaths. If you hear nothing else, I say tonight, hear this: anyone who is responsible for that many deaths should not remain President of the United States." Netizens asked, "who is the one that should not remain President of the US?" 

The news on one million deaths of COVID-19 in the US was also a trending topic on Chinese social media on Friday with many Chinese mourning the dead, sending condolences to bereaved families and asking how can the US, the greatest power that's fond of flexing its muscles around the world, have such a tragic death tally yet no official has been held accountable.

"One million is not just a number, it's lost lives. The US government indeed cares nothing about Americans' lives and health," a netizen commented. Another wrote that "Without reflecting on its failures and taking concrete actions to save lives, the US government still uses useless and flatulent ways for commemoration. Will one million people come back to their beloved ones after Biden's pompous speeches?"