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The One Vital Message of Nearing 100,000 US Deaths

Opinion by Jeffrey D. Sachs


May 24, 2020   |   CNN.com


Editor's Note: Jeffrey Sachs is a professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN) On this somber Memorial Day weekend, America is approaching the grim milestone of 100,000 Covid-19 deaths in a population of 330 million. Six Asia-Pacific nations -- Australia, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Taiwan and Vietnam -- have just over 1,200 coronavirus deaths in a combined population almost the same as the US, 328 million. On May 23, the Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker shows that America recorded 1,208 new deaths, while the six Asia-Pacific countries recorded just 13 deaths: 12 in Japan, 1 in Australia, and 0 in the others. America has failed to control the epidemic while many other countries, and not just the six in the Asia-Pacific, have succeeded. The American political system has not been focused on how to end the epidemic. Our political debates from the first days of the epidemic have taken the bait of Donald Trump's nonsensical Twitter feed: chloroquine, Clorox, China pro and con, WHO pro and con, filling church pews by Easter, the liberation of states, the bailout of the post office, the loyalty of Fox News, and whether or not to wear a face mask at the Ford Motor plant. This is not the politics of problem solving; it is the politics of distraction. Six months into the epidemic and around 100,000 deaths later we still do not have systematic contact tracing across the country. Neither the President nor Congress has focused on the topic even though it is the key to keeping Americans alive and restoring the economy. Our politics are tribal and ineffective. Rather than designing a system of nationwide contact tracing, we debate Trump versus House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. As Americans, we should readily agree that both the President and Congress have failed miserably. Neither has focused on how to stop the epidemic. Both have focused on blaming the other. The truth is simple and grim. If we don't stop the epidemic, we will face many more deaths and a long and deep depression. It would be wonderful if a vaccine suddenly rescues us from our persistent failure to implement basic public health measures. But don't bet on it. The recent news stories on vaccines have the hallmarks of hype, the kind of stories typically followed by long delays and disappointments. That's not a forecast, just an urgent point that we should not leave the rescue of the republic to unproven vaccines still in the early stages of development. Sadly, many state and local governments have failed to compensate for the lack of federal leadership. Yes, there were dire shortages of testing equipment because of shocking failures at the federal level. Yet much more epidemic control could have been achieved nonetheless at the state and local level. New York, for example, failed to note the early spread of the epidemic or to create systems for contact tracing when it was urgently needed. Even worse, New York state health authorities disastrously ordered that convalescing Covid-19 patients should be moved from hospitals to nursing homes, thereby risking mass infections in those highly vulnerable settings. There have been thousands of avoidable and tragic deaths in the state's care centers. And yet some cities, such as Paterson, New Jersey, have innovated and set a crucial standard for the rest. Thousands more preventable deaths lie ahead unless and until we start focusing as a nation on ending the epidemic. Ignore Trump's Twitter feed. It has nothing to do with our real and urgent needs. Our core question should be this: How can the United States quickly and urgently implement basic public health measures -- contact tracing, testing, quarantining, and safe public and workplace practices -- already achieved in the Asia-Pacific and many other countries? Only by stopping the rampant spread of the disease can we be safe and can our economy function once again. In this coming week, Congress should return immediately -- online if necessary -- to consider this issue and this issue alone. By the end of the week, Congress should vote for legislation to finance and otherwise support the urgent and immediate scale-up of nationwide contact tracing and safe workplace practices. The National Governors Association and the United States Conference of Mayors should do the same. Within a few days we could finally have a meeting of the minds and a national strategy, with or without Trump. We have suffered enough from rudderless, distracted and deadly politics.

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