Editor’s Note: Jeffrey Sachs is a professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and president of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. His most recent book is “The Ages of Globalization” (Columbia University Press, 2020). The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion on CNN.
With 678,000 deaths and rising, Covid-19 is now the deadliest epidemic ever to hit the United States, surpassing the death toll of the 1918 flu, and indeed the combined US military deaths in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf Wars and the Afghanistan War.
There is one overwhelming and grim reality: most of the Covid deaths could have been prevented, but America’s fractured culture – political, economic and personal – mainly delivered death rather than life.
With our 330 million-plus population, the pandemic has caused about 2,048 deaths per million population. This is one of the highest mortality rates in the world. Several South American countries have higher rates, as do a few countries of Europe.
Yet the death rate is shockingly high, considering that the US mass produces Covid-19 vaccines that prevent most deaths. Instead of an orderly lifesaving response to the epidemic, the US response has been unruly and disorderly from the start.
Many lives would have been saved if the US had only implemented basic public-health protections until mass vaccine coverage was possible: mask mandates, physical distancing, testing-tracing-isolation procedures and closing large events. Once the vaccines arrived, continued use of precautionary actions would have helped to keep the virus at bay. (Vaccines save lives but only partly prevent infections and transmission.)
This is the route that Australia, China, Hong Kong, Korea, New Zealand and Taiwan have scrupulously followed. Their deaths rates per million are a tiny fraction of the US death rate. All those countries have suffered fewer than 50 deaths per million population, or less than one-40th of the US death rate. If the US had kept deaths to 50 per million rather than the actual 2,048 deaths per million, the US would have saved 650,000 lives from Covid-19.
US culture has repeatedly showed itself to be too self-centered, shortsighted and poorly informed to forestall mass deaths and continued surges of infection.
Even with lifesaving vaccines in prospect or in hand, politicians – and notably Republican politicians – and too much of the public demanded complete, immediate and untrammeled personal freedom: the freedom to not wear face masks, the freedom to attend large gatherings, the freedom to eschew vaccines and the freedom to infect others.
Many right wingers have treated even the most modest and limited protections as an attack on freedom. No immediate gratification should be denied; no face masks warranted even in schools, where children face the threats of infection. The message is now, now, now, without a pause for informed reflection and safety.
The selfishness of it all has been staggering. Poor people and people of color in disproportionate numbers, and frontline workers, were repeatedly ordered to go to work in unprotected settings at workplaces where even basic face mask protections were widely flouted.
We have watched as brave public health workers have faced abuse and even death threats, and of shop clerks and customers have been pummeled, simply for asking others to put on a face mask. We have seen clergy endanger their congregants by demanding the right to hold indoor church services even as the pandemic rages in their community, even when they could have moved the services outdoors or online.
We have been deluged by the infodemic of fake news on right-wing and social media.
The US has proved itself to be the land of a very peculiar notion of freedom: the freedom to harm others, to put the poor and frontline workers in mortal danger, and to spread misinformation. Freedom, in short, without a glimmer of responsibility.
In recent weeks, the culture of irresponsibility has played out in especially dangerous and vulgar ways in Florida, Texas and other states where Republican governors have fought against even basic public health measures. Governors Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas have, through their policies, been effectively leading their citizens toward death. Not only have they eschewed state-level mandates on the use of face masks, they have aggressively prevented local school districts from doing so.
Across the 50 states, those with Republican governors and those with chronically weak public education systems, notably states in the South, have had much lower vaccine uptake than the states with Democratic legislatures and with better performing schools, notably those in the Northeast.
These facts reflect the two aspects of our broken culture: the Republican ideology of irresponsibility in the name of freedom and a culture prey to misinformation that results from chronically low-quality public education.
We are not at the end of this story. Covid-19 deaths in the US continue at an average of around 1,900 per day (during the last seven days). Long ago, the US Covid deaths ceased to be a tragic fact of nature, but became a fact of a fractured culture. America needs to embrace life, not death.