We will look back at America’s response to the pandemic as one of our greatest failures. We — all of us Americans — are at fault. This epic public health failure is the culmination of ideologies that have been brewing in America for generations: American exceptionalism, a perverse interpretation of egalitarianism and a vilification of science and facts.
Nearly 150,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. As a physician caring for patients every day, I am ashamed of our response to the pandemic. We have failed our most vulnerable — the elderly, the sick, the fragile. We have been unable to use our immense resources to fight this virus in a coherent and effective way. Instead of tapping into the best and brightest, we have squandered precious time boasting about how great our response has been and how things aren’t really as bad as they seem. But they are that bad.
My parents immigrated to America after passage of the Immigration Act of 1965. My father came as a graduate student with $50 in his pocket and brought my mother a few years later. They worked hard, entered the middle class and raised two children — they lived the American dream. They wanted their children to have unlimited opportunity in that “shining city on the hill.” I imagine that they were swept up by the American dream — the land of equality and prosperity, where anything is possible if you work hard. Immigrants like my parents were seduced by the myth of exceptionalism, too.
My sister and I, born in America, have benefited from my parents’ journey here. We fulfilled the dream and have become the model minorities. But in recent years, I sometimes have questioned my parents’ decision to come here. In this America, we too often shun science and spin every fact into a political calculation. In this America, some lives are worth more than others. In this America, people of color die at alarming rates. And in this America people can die simply because they lack access to health care.
Is America living up to her promise? Can we not do better?
As a doctor, I am embarrassed over the health care system that we allow to exist. I ask my employees to reuse KN95 masks, imported from overseas, for up to a week. We are re-using medical gowns for up to 14 days at a time because there is a shortage. COVID-19 testing is limited and results take days to return. I am practicing third-world medicine in the greatest nation in the world.
This pandemic has laid bare so many inequities in the American social system. Parents must decide to send their children back to underfunded schools so they can get to work despite rising cases of COVID-19. People choose to go to work sick because they cannot afford to stay home from work. Families forgo basic medical care to ensure they can afford rent and food. This is the American reality. How disappointing.
Our leaders have persuaded too many Americans that wearing a mask to reduce spread of the virus is somehow unpatriotic and strips us of our liberty. Think about it. Americans have been led to believe that the cost of preserving the American way of life is human life.
American exceptionalism, a common rallying cry of all political parties, is a belief that our destiny is special. But when it morphs dangerously, it becomes a feeling that we are so superior, that we have nothing to learn from any other country. The rest of the world looks on in astonishment at the abject selfishness and foolishness that leads people to walk around unmasked during a pandemic.
We scorned the lockdowns in Italy and the incredible health care infrastructure in Singapore that allowed for mass testing and contact tracing of COVID patients. We mocked the early and aggressive responses of New Zealand and South Korea. And so America leads the world in COVID cases and deaths and trails the world in testing and contact tracing. How is that for exceptional?
American exceptionalism has another face — extreme egalitarianism, a belief that every person is equally equipped to make important decisions and that no voice counts more than any other. At the ballot box, that is true. But not in the science lab.
The guy who got a D in your high school biology class now feels confident interpreting medical information and deciding that this pandemic is just like the flu and is being blown out of proportion by doctors and scientists. A quick Google search is now equivalent to a medical degree when deciding that hydroxychloroquine is the cure for COVID. This is egalitarianism gone wild.
But as I care for my patients every day and help my community fight this pandemic, I am reminded that if America is a dream worth fighting for, then this is the time to take a stand. This is the moment for those of us who love America to look deep into her heart and soul and reckon with her sins past and present.
We’ve lost the chance to contain the coronavirus. But there is still time to save American lives. It will require humility to learn from our collective and global experience. We must admit our mistakes and have the strength to correct our course. It will require an understanding that with liberty comes great responsibility, not just to ourselves but to our communities and especially to our most vulnerable.
Being part of a great society requires the sense of shared social responsibility. We must carry this burden collectively. We must value facts and expertise, and we must re-commit to the never-realized ideals of our founding fathers. Don’t forget that in each of us, no matter our political leanings, lies basic human goodness. We are all Americans. And we are all in this together.
Dr. Mona V. Mangat is a board-certified allergist and immunologist in St. Petersburg. She currently owns and practices at Bay Area Allergy & Asthma. Dr. Mangat also currently serves on the Restart St. Pete Task Force and is the recent past board chair of Doctors for America.