Wade Davis on how COVID-19 signals the end of the American era. The COVID
crisis has reduced to tatters the idea of American exceptionalism.
holds the Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the
University of British Columbia. His award-winning books include “Into the
Silence” and “The Wayfinders.” His new book, “Magdalena: River of Dreams,” is published by Knopf.
Never in our lives have we experienced such a global phenomenon.
For the first time in the history of the world, all of humanity, informed by
the unprecedented reach of digital technology, has come together, focused on
the same existential threat, consumed by the same fears and uncertainties,
eagerly anticipating the same, as yet unrealized, promises of medical science.
In a single season, civilization has been brought low by a
microscopic parasite 10,000 times smaller than a grain of salt. COVID-19 attacks our
physical bodies, but also the cultural foundations of our lives, the toolbox of
community and connectivity that is for the human what claws and teeth represent
to the tiger.
Our interventions to date have largely focused on mitigating
the rate of spread, flattening the curve of morbidity. There is no treatment at
hand, and no certainty of a vaccine on the near horizon. The fastest vaccine
ever developed was for mumps. It took four years. COVID-19 killed 100,000
Americans in four months. There is some evidence that natural infection may not
imply immunity, leaving some to question how effective a vaccine will be, even
assuming one can be found. And it must be safe. If the global population is to
be immunized, lethal complications in just one person in a thousand would imply
the death of millions.
Pandemics and plagues have a way of shifting the course of
history, and not always in a manner immediately evident to the survivors. In
the 14th Century, the Black Death killed close to half of Europe’s population.
A scarcity of labor led to increased wages. Rising expectations culminated in
the Peasants Revolt of 1381, an inflection point that marked the beginning of
the end of the feudal order that had dominated medieval Europe for a thousand
The COVID pandemic will be remembered as such a moment in
history, a seminal event whose significance will unfold only in the wake of the
crisis. It will mark this era much as the 1914 assassination of Archduke
Ferdinand, the stock market crash of 1929, and the 1933 ascent of Adolf Hitler
became fundamental benchmarks of the last century, all harbingers of greater
and more consequential outcomes.
COVID’s historic significance lies not in what it implies
for our daily lives. Change, after all, is the one constant when it comes to
culture. All peoples in all places at all times are always dancing with new
possibilities for life. As companies eliminate or downsize central offices,
employees work from home, restaurants close, shopping malls shutter, streaming
brings entertainment and sporting events into the home, and airline travel
becomes ever more problematic and miserable, people will adapt, as we’ve always
done. Fluidity of memory and a capacity to forget is perhaps the most haunting
trait of our species. As history confirms, it allows us to come to terms with
any degree of social, moral, or environmental degradation.
To be sure, financial uncertainty will cast a long shadow.
Hovering over the global economy for some time will be the sober realization
that all the money in the hands of all the nations on Earth will never be
enough to offset the losses sustained when an entire world ceases to function,
with workers and businesses everywhere facing a choice between economic and
Unsettling as these transitions and circumstances will be,
short of a complete economic collapse, none stands out as a turning point in
history. But what surely does is the absolutely devastating impact that the
pandemic has had on the reputation and international standing of the United
States of America.
In a dark season of pestilence, COVID has reduced to tatters
the illusion of American exceptionalism. At the height of the crisis, with more
than 2,000 dying each day, Americans found themselves members of a failed
state, ruled by a dysfunctional and incompetent government largely responsible
for death rates that added a tragic coda to America’s claim to supremacy in the
For the first time, the international community felt
compelled to send disaster relief to Washington. For more than two centuries,
reported the Irish Times, “the United States has stirred a very wide range of
feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and
contempt, awe and anger. But there is one emotion that has never been directed
towards the U.S. until now: pity.” As American doctors and nurses eagerly
awaited emergency airlifts of basic supplies from China, the hinge of history
opened to the Asian century.
No empire long endures, even if few anticipate their demise.
Every kingdom is born to die. The 15th century belonged to the Portuguese, the
16th to Spain, 17th to the Dutch. France dominated the 18th and Britain the
19th. Bled white and left bankrupt by the Great War, the British maintained a
pretense of domination as late as 1935, when the empire reached its greatest
geographical extent. By then, of course, the torch had long passed into the
hands of America.
In 1940, with Europe already ablaze, the United States had a
smaller army than either Portugal or Bulgaria. Within four years, 18 million
men and women would serve in uniform, with millions more working double shifts
in mines and factories that made America, as President Roosevelt promised, the
arsenal of democracy.
When the Japanese within six weeks of Pearl Harbor took
control of 90 percent of the world’s rubber supply, the U.S. dropped the speed
limit to 35 mph to protect tires, and then, in three years, invented from
scratch a synthetic-rubber industry that allowed Allied armies to roll over the
Nazis. At its peak, Henry Ford’s Willow Run Plant produced a B-24 Liberator
every two hours, around the clock. Shipyards in Long Beach and Sausalito spat
out Liberty ships at a rate of two a day for four years; the record was a ship
built in four days, 15 hours and 29 minutes. A single American factory,
Chrysler’s Detroit Arsenal, built more tanks than the whole of the Third Reich.
In the wake of the war, with Europe and Japan in ashes, the
United States with but 6 percent of the world’s population accounted for half
of the global economy, including the production of 93 percent of all
automobiles. Such economic dominance birthed a vibrant middle class, a trade
union movement that allowed a single breadwinner with limited education to own
a home and a car, support a family, and send his kids to good schools. It was
not by any means a perfect world but affluence allowed for a truce between
capital and labor, a reciprocity of opportunity in a time of rapid growth and
declining income inequality, marked by high tax rates for the wealthy, who were
by no means the only beneficiaries of a golden age of American capitalism.
But freedom and affluence came with a price. The United
States, virtually a demilitarized nation on the eve of the Second World War,
never stood down in the wake of victory. To this day, American troops are
deployed in 150 countries. Since the 1970s, China has not once gone to war; the
U.S. has not spent a day at peace. President Jimmy Carter recently noted that
in its 242-year history, America has enjoyed only 16 years of peace, making it,
as he wrote, “the most warlike nation in the history of the world.” Since 2001,
the U.S. has spent over $6 trillion on military operations and war, money that
might have been invested in the infrastructure of home. China, meanwhile, built
its nation, pouring more cement every three years than America did in the
entire 20th century.
As America policed the world, the violence came home. On
D-Day, June 6th, 1944, the Allied death toll was 4,414; in 2019, domestic gun
violence had killed that many American men and women by the end of April. By
June of that year, guns in the hands of ordinary Americans had caused more
casualties than the Allies suffered in Normandy in the first month of a
campaign that consumed the military strength of five nations.
More than any other country, the United States in the
post-war era lionized the individual at the expense of community and family. It
was the sociological equivalent of splitting the atom. What was gained in terms
of mobility and personal freedom came at the expense of common purpose. In wide
swaths of America, the family as an institution lost its grounding. By the
1960s, 40 percent of marriages were ending in divorce. Only six percent of
American homes had grandparents living beneath the same roof as grandchildren;
elders were abandoned to retirement homes.
With slogans like “24/7” celebrating complete dedication to
the workplace, men and women exhausted themselves in jobs that only reinforced
their isolation from their families. The average American father spends less
than 20 minutes a day in direct communication with his child. By the time a
youth reaches 18, he or she will have spent fully two years watching television
or staring at a laptop screen, contributing to an obesity epidemic that the
Joint Chiefs have called a national security crisis.
Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. in Akron, Ohio on April 3rd,
1944. When the Japanese within six weeks of Pearl Harbor took control of 90
percent of the world’s rubber supply, the U.S. dropped the speed limit to 35
mph to protect tires, and then, in three years, invented from scratch a
Only half of Americans report having meaningful,
face-to-face social interactions on a daily basis. The nation consumes
two-thirds of the world’s production of antidepressant drugs. The collapse of
the working-class family has been responsible in part for an opioid crisis that
has displaced car accidents as the leading cause of death for Americans under
At the root of this transformation and decline lies an
ever-widening chasm between Americans who have and those who have little or
nothing. Economic disparities exist in all nations, creating a tension that can
be as disruptive as the inequities are unjust. In any number of settings, however,
the negative forces tearing apart a society are mitigated or even muted if
there are other elements that reinforce social solidarity — religious faith,
the strength and comfort of family, the pride of tradition, fidelity to the
land, a spirit of place.
But when all the old certainties are shown to be lies, when
the promise of a good life for a working family is shattered as factories close
and corporate leaders, growing wealthier by the day, ship jobs abroad, the
social contract is irrevocably broken. For two generations, America has
celebrated globalization with iconic intensity, when, as any working man or
woman can see, it’s nothing more than capital on the prowl in search of ever
cheaper sources of labor.
For many years, those on the conservative right in the
United States have invoked a nostalgia for the 1950s, and an America that never
was, but has to be presumed to have existed to rationalize their sense of loss
and abandonment, their fear of change, their bitter resentments and lingering
contempt for the social movements of the 1960s, a time of new aspirations for
women, gays, and people of color. In truth, at least in economic terms, the
country of the 1950s resembled Denmark as much as the America of today.
Marginal tax rates for the wealthy were 90 percent. The salaries of CEOs were,
on average, just 20 times that of their mid-management employees.
Today, the base pay of those at the top is commonly 400
times that of their salaried staff, with many earning orders of magnitude more
in stock options and perks. The elite one percent of Americans control $30
trillion of assets, while the bottom half have more debt than assets. The three
richest Americans have more money than the poorest 160 million of their
countrymen. Fully a fifth of American households have zero or negative net
worth, a figure that rises to 37 percent for black families. The median wealth
of black households is a tenth that of whites. The vast majority of Americans —
white, black, and brown — are two paychecks removed from bankruptcy. Though
living in a nation that celebrates itself as the wealthiest in history, most
Americans live on a high wire, with no safety net to brace a fall.
With the COVID crisis, 40 million Americans lost their jobs,
and 3.3 million businesses shut down, including 41 percent of all black-owned
enterprises. Black Americans, who significantly outnumber whites in federal
prisons despite being but 13 percent of the population, are suffering
shockingly high rates of morbidity and mortality, dying at nearly three times
the rate of white Americans. The cardinal rule of American social policy —
don’t let any ethnic group get below the blacks, or allow anyone to suffer more
indignities — rang true even in a pandemic, as if the virus was taking its cues
from American history.
COVID-19 didn’t lay America low; it simply revealed what had
long been forsaken. As the crisis unfolded, with another American dying every
minute of every day, a country that once turned out fighter planes by the hour
could not manage to produce the paper masks or cotton swabs essential for
tracking the disease. The nation that defeated smallpox and polio, and led the
world for generations in medical innovation and discovery, was reduced to a
laughing stock as a buffoon of a president advocated the use of household
disinfectants as a treatment for a disease that intellectually he could not
begin to understand.
As a number of countries moved expeditiously to contain the
virus, the United States stumbled along in denial, as if willfully blind. With
less than four percent of the global population, the U.S. soon accounted for
more than a fifth of COVID deaths. The percentage of American victims of the
disease who died was six times the global average. Achieving the world’s
highest rate of morbidity and mortality provoked not shame, but only further
lies, scapegoating, and boasts of miracle cures as dubious as the claims of a
carnival barker, a grifter on the make.
As the United States responded to the crisis like a corrupt
tin pot dictatorship, the actual tin pot dictators of the world took the
opportunity to seize the high ground, relishing a rare sense of moral
superiority, especially in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in
Minneapolis. The autocratic leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, chastised America
for “maliciously violating ordinary citizens’ rights.” North Korean newspapers
objected to “police brutality” in America. Quoted in the Iranian press,
Ayatollah Khamenei gloated, “America has begun the process of its own
Trump’s performance and America’s crisis deflected attention
from China’s own mishandling of the initial outbreak in Wuhan, not to mention
its move to crush democracy in Hong Kong. When an American official raised the
issue of human rights on Twitter, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson,
invoking the killing of George Floyd, responded with one short phrase, “I can’t
These politically motivated remarks may be easy to dismiss.
But Americans have not done themselves any favors. Their political process made
possible the ascendancy to the highest office in the land a national disgrace,
a demagogue as morally and ethically compromised as a person can be. As a
British writer quipped, “there have always been stupid people in the world, and
plenty of nasty people too. But rarely has stupidity been so nasty, or
nastiness so stupid”.
The American president lives to cultivate resentments,
demonize his opponents, validate hatred. His main tool of governance is the
lie; as of July 9th, 2020, the documented tally of his distortions and false
statements numbered 20,055. If America’s first president, George Washington,
famously could not tell a lie, the current one can’t recognize the truth.
Inverting the words and sentiments of Abraham Lincoln, this dark troll of a man
celebrates malice for all, and charity for none.
Odious as he may be, Trump is less the cause of America’s
decline than a product of its descent. As they stare into the mirror and
perceive only the myth of their exceptionalism, Americans remain almost
bizarrely incapable of seeing what has actually become of their country. The
republic that defined the free flow of information as the life blood of
democracy, today ranks 45th among nations when it comes to press freedom. In a
land that once welcomed the huddled masses of the world, more people today
favor building a wall along the southern border than supporting health care and
protection for the undocumented mothers and children arriving in desperation at
its doors. In a complete abandonment of the collective good, U.S. laws define
freedom as an individual’s inalienable right to own a personal arsenal of
weaponry, a natural entitlement that trumps even the safety of children; in the
past decade alone 346 American students and teachers have been shot on school
The American cult of the individual denies not just
community but the very idea of society. No one owes anything to anyone. All
must be prepared to fight for everything: education, shelter, food, medical
care. What every prosperous and successful democracy deems to be fundamental
rights — universal health care, equal access to quality public education, a
social safety net for the weak, elderly, and infirmed — America dismisses as
socialist indulgences, as if so many signs of weakness.
How can the rest of the world expect America to lead on
global threats — climate change, the extinction crisis, pandemics — when the
country no longer has a sense of benign purpose, or collective well-being, even
within its own national community? Flag-wrapped patriotism is no substitute for
compassion; anger and hostility no match for love. Those who flock to beaches,
bars, and political rallies, putting their fellow citizens at risk, are not
exercising freedom; they are displaying, as one commentator has noted, the
weakness of a people who lack both the stoicism to endure the pandemic and the
fortitude to defeat it. Leading their charge is Donald Trump, a bone
spur warrior, a liar and a fraud, a grotesque caricature of a strong man, with
the backbone of a bully.
Over the last months, a quip has circulated on the internet
suggesting that to live in Canada today is like owning an apartment above a
meth lab. Canada is no perfect place, but it has handled the COVID crisis well,
notably in British Columbia, where I live. Vancouver is just three hours by
road north of Seattle, where the U.S. outbreak began. Half of Vancouver’s
population is Asian, and typically dozens of flights arrive each day from China
and East Asia. Logically, it should have been hit very hard, but the health
care system performed exceedingly well. Throughout the crisis, testing rates
across Canada have been consistently five times that of the U.S. On a per
capita basis, Canada has suffered half the morbidity and mortality. For every
person who has died in British Columbia, 44 have perished in Massachusetts, a
state with a comparable population that has reported more COVID cases than all
of Canada. As of July 30th, even as rates of COVID infection and death soared
across much of the United States, with 59,629 new cases reported on that day
alone, hospitals in British Columbia registered a total of just five COVID
When American friends ask for an explanation, I encourage
them to reflect on the last time they bought groceries at their neighborhood
Safeway. In the U.S. there is almost always a racial, economic, cultural, and
educational chasm between the consumer and the check-out staff that is
difficult if not impossible to bridge. In Canada, the experience is quite
different. One interacts if not as peers, certainly as members of a wider
community. The reason for this is very simple. The checkout person may not
share your level of affluence, but they know that you know that they are
getting a living wage because of the unions. And they know that you know that
their kids and yours most probably go to the same neighborhood public school.
Third, and most essential, they know that you know that if their children get
sick, they will get exactly the same level of medical care not only of your
children but of those of the prime minister. These three strands woven together
become the fabric of Canadian social democracy.
Asked what he thought of Western civilization, Mahatma
Gandhi famously replied, “I think that would be a good idea.” Such a remark may
seem cruel, but it accurately reflects the view of America today as seen from
the perspective of any modern social democracy. Canada performed well during
the COVID crisis because of our social contract, the bonds of community, the
trust for each other and our institutions, our health care system in
particular, with hospitals that cater to the medical needs of the collective,
not the individual, and certainly not the private investor who views every
hospital bed as if a rental property. The measure of wealth in a civilized
nation is not the currency accumulated by the lucky few, but rather the
strength and resonance of social relations and the bonds of reciprocity that
connect all people in common purpose.
This has nothing to do with political ideology, and
everything to do with the quality of life. Finns live longer and are less
likely to die in childhood or in giving birth than Americans. Danes earn
roughly the same after-tax income as Americans, while working 20 percent less.
They pay in taxes an extra 19 cents for every dollar earned. But in return they
get free health care, free education from pre-school through university, and
the opportunity to prosper in a thriving free-market economy with dramatically
lower levels of poverty, homelessness, crime, and inequality. The average
worker is paid better, treated more respectfully, and rewarded with life
insurance, pension plans, maternity leave, and six weeks of paid vacation a
year. All of these benefits only inspire Danes to work harder, with fully 80
percent of men and women aged 16 to 64 engaged in the labor force, a figure far
higher than that of the United States.
American politicians dismiss the Scandinavian model as
creeping socialism, communism lite, something that would never work in the
United States. In truth, social democracies are successful precisely because
they foment dynamic capitalist economies that just happen to benefit every tier
of society. That social democracy will never take hold in the United States may
well be true, but, if so, it is a stunning indictment, and just what Oscar
Wilde had in mind when he quipped that the United States was the only country
to go from barbarism to decadence without passing through civilization.
Evidence of such terminal decadence is the choice that so
many Americans made in 2016 to prioritize their personal indignations, placing
their own resentments above any concerns for the fate of the country and the
world, as they rushed to elect a man whose only credential for the job was his
willingness to give voice to their hatreds, validate their anger, and target
their enemies, real or imagined. One shudders to think of what it will mean to
the world if Americans in November, knowing all that they do, elect to keep
such a man in political power. But even should Trump be resoundingly defeated,
it’s not at all clear that such a profoundly polarized nation will be able to
find a way forward. For better or for worse, America has had its time.
The end of the American era and the passing of the torch to
Asia is no occasion for celebration, no time to gloat. In a moment of
international peril, when humanity might well have entered a dark age beyond
all conceivable horrors, the industrial might of the United States, together with
the blood of ordinary Russian soldiers, literally saved the world. American
ideals, as celebrated by Madison and Monroe, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Kennedy,
at one time inspired and gave hope to millions.
If and when the Chinese are ascendant, with their concentration
camps for the Uighurs, the ruthless reach of their military, their 200 million
surveillance cameras watching every move and gesture of their people, we will
surely long for the best years of the American century. For the moment, we have
only the kleptocracy of Donald Trump. Between praising the Chinese for their
treatment of the Uighurs, describing their internment and torture as “exactly
the right thing to do,” and his dispensing of medical advice concerning the
therapeutic use of chemical disinfectants, Trump blithely remarked, “One day,
it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” He had in mind, of course, the coronavirus, but, as
others have said, he might just as well have been referring to the American
*Wade Davis holds the
Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the University of
British Columbia. His award-winning books include “Into the Silence” and “The
Wayfinders.” His new book, “Magdalena:
River of Dreams,” is published by Knopf.