On January 20, both South Korea and the U.S. reported their first case of the novel coronavirus. Two months later, while South Korea has largely contained the spread, the U.S. is grappling with an exponential increase in the number of cases. On March 26, with 69,197 cases, U.S surpassed Spain (49,515) to have the second highest case load outside mainland China. Now it is inching closer to Italys case load of 74,386. On the other hand, South Korea has reported 9,241 cases, six times fewer than the U.S.
A tale of two countries
The difference in availability of reliable testing kits in large numbers is mainly why there is such a striking difference in case load in these two countries. While South Korea approved the first coronavirus test on February 7, when there were just a few cases, the U.S. floundered. In early February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) distributed about 1,60,000 testing kits to labs across the country. However, only about 200 of them were used. In February, testing was stalled due to various problems. The narrow criteria for testing suspect cases also made it extremely difficult to identify the silent spread of the virus in the community. It was only on February 27 that CDC expanded the criteria allowing doctors to test hospitalised patients with symptoms compatible with COVID-19 as well as other vulnerable populations.
When tests werent available and the testing criteria remained narrow, U.S. President Donald Trump did nothing to get the tests from the World Health Organization or allow companies to produce them. Instead, he lulled people into believing that the virus spread was under check. Unfortunately, the top priority for Mr. Trump does not seem to be public health but the stock market and his re-election prospects.
On January 22, when the WHO was meeting to decide if the SARS-CoV-19 outbreak was a public health emergency of international concern, Mr. Trump said in an interview, We have it totally under control. He reiterated this on several occasions. On March 9, when the number of cases in the U.S. crossed 500 and the number of deaths rose to 22, Mr. Trump tweeted that the SARS-CoV-2 risk is low to the average American. To make matters worse, he appointed Vice President Mike Pence to lead the U.S. response to the pandemic. This was despite Mr. Pence being responsible, as the Governor of Indiana, for the largest HIV outbreak in the states history. Worse, government health officials and scientists are required to seek Mr. Pences approval before speaking about the virus.
War on science
Mr. Trump has often waged a war on science. In the past, he has made false claims on evolution, called global warming a total, and very expensive, hoax, and stated that vaccines cause autism. However, he seems to have taken a U-turn now, urging pharma companies to come up with a vaccine quickly. Do me a favour, speed it up, speed it up, he said. In response, a strongly worded editorial in Science said: Do us a favour, Mr. President. If you want something, start treating science and its principles with respect.
As the number of cases started climbing, Mr. Trump changed the narrative. First, he lashed out at the Democrats, calling the virus their new hoax. Then he blamed China and referred to SARS-CoV-2 as a Chinese virus. When the term angered Chinese officials and others, he defended it saying, Its not racist at all. It comes from China, thats why. Later he said he wished China would have told us earlier. But according to The Washington Post, U.S. intelligence agencies had raised concerns about the virus in January-February, but the President continued to downplay the risk and failed to act.
Mr. Trump is known for undermining scientists, institutions and the media. He shut down the White House National Security Councils entire global health security unit in 2018, an error that is perhaps going to cost him dearly now. He can only sincerely hope that one day, its like a miracle, it will disappear.