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August 20, 2021

In Brief: What We’ve Gotten Right in the COVID Fight

Everyone seems to have soured on America’s record during the pandemic. Everyone is wrong.

Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute says that it’s easy to be negative and much harder to be positive, especially when it comes to the American response to COVID. “You can’t learn much if you aren’t willing to acknowledge successes alongside failures,” he says, so he works to recount what we did right, and he broke it into four large categories:


America’s experience of the pandemic does not actually stand out as a failure in comparative terms. It has certainly been much more painful than the experiences of the Asian democracies, but it has broadly resembled that of much of the developed West. The cumulative number of COVID deaths in the U.S. relative to our population amounted to just over 1,800 deaths per million people as of the summer of 2021. That’s a lot lower than in Italy, a little lower than in the United Kingdom and Poland, and a little higher than in France and Spain. Canada did a good bit better than we did by this measure, but Belgium did a good bit worse. The same basic picture emerges when you consider the other key indicators of the severity of the crisis, such as caseloads and hospitalizations, relative to population. In terms of outcomes, our country has not stood out from the pack.

Levin notes as simply a matter of fact that we spent more in real and relative terms than any other nation to mitigate the effects of this plague. Some of it was even well spent.


The greatest of America’s pandemic successes, however, has surely been the vaccine effort. This is where we have stood out most. Our country’s long record of enormous public investments in academic medical research — including especially the generational investment in the Human Genome Project beginning two decades ago — made the development of the innovative mRNA vaccines possible. And the vast infrastructure of small and large pharmaceutical firms drawing on the genius of America’s great research universities created the conditions for a swift response to a new and unfamiliar virus.

The vaccine story has been, at its essence, an American story.

Distribution wasn’t as smooth as it could have been, but nevertheless it got off the ground, and “by August nearly 350 million doses had been administered in our country.”


The Asian democracies, including South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, proved exceptionally capable at mobilizing discipline in response to the pandemic. They quickly put forward rules of restraint—mandating masks, imposing rigorous surveillance and contact-tracing regimes, isolating even from their own families those who were infected — and their people accepted these rules and abided by them. This was not only very effective but also very impressive. It gave them and us the sense that they had designed an organized, focused response, and it kept caseloads under control.

The United States is just awful at this kind of civic discipline. It isn’t who we are, and it isn’t going to be. Americans did make great sacrifices and show serious restraint to abide by pandemic rules, of course. People shut down their lives, withdrew from public places, kept away from family and friends, masked their faces, and curtailed their activities. But we did all this unevenly, grudgingly, and only up to a point. Uniform, preventive compliance in response to authority was never in the cards.

Our allergy to this sort of civic discipline lay behind many of our failures in this pandemic. It was why things went sideways every time we needed to listen to an expert, or to act in unison, or to show restraint. Some of this is a function of the hyper-partisan distemper that characterizes 21st-century America. But much of it is just the long-standing unruliness of the American people.

Yet that unruliness has always been the opposite side of the coin of America’s greatest strengths. We may be terrible at mobilizing discipline, but no one is better than the United States at mobilizing capacity. We are slow and sloppy in awakening to action, but once we are awakened, we are capable of unimaginably immense exertions.


Americans don’t mobilize into order — we mobilize into action, and our modes of mobilized action are often very disorderly. It’s in our character.

He concludes:

The virus posed an immense challenge to every society. No government managed a smooth and effective response. Every nation has seen its vices magnified alongside its virtues. The standard against which we measure our leaders and ourselves needs to take that into account, so it can help us learn and improve. When disaster strikes, we should not expect from our society a tidy and efficient falling into line but a sprawling, messy, sloppy, yet mammoth and effective American mobilization.

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