America’s failure so far to contain the spread of the coronavirus as it moves across the country has been met with astonishment and alarm on both sides of the Atlantic.
With confirmed coronavirus cases in the US hitting 5 million on Sunday, by far the highest of any country, the failure of the most powerful nation in the world to contain the scourge has been met with astonishment and alarm in Europe.
Perhaps nowhere outside the US is America’s bungled virus response viewed with more consternation than in Italy, which was ground zero of Europe’s epidemic. Italians were unprepared when the outbreak exploded in February, and the country still has one of the world’s highest official death tolls at 35,000.
But after a strict nationwide, 10-week lockdown, vigilant tracing of new clusters and general acceptance of mask mandates and social distancing, Italy has become a model of virus containment.
“Don’t they care about their health?” a mask-clad Patrizia Antonini asked about people in the United States as she walked with friends along the banks of Lake Bracciano, north of Rome.
“They need to take our precautions. … They need a real lockdown.” Much of the incredulity in Europe stems from the fact that America had the benefit of time, European experience and medical know-how to treat the virus that the continent itself didn’t have when the first Covid-19 patients started filling intensive care units.
Yet, more than four months into a sustained outbreak, the U.S. reached the 5 million mark, according to the running count kept by Johns Hopkins University. Health officials believe the actual number is perhaps 10 times higher, or closer to 50 million, given testing limitations and the fact that as many as 40% of all those who are infected have no symptoms.
“We Italians always saw America as a model,” said Massimo Franco, a columnist with daily Corriere della Sera. “But with this virus we’ve discovered a country that is very fragile, with bad infrastructure and a public health system that is nonexistent.” Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza hasn’t shied away from criticizing the U.S., officially condemning as “wrong” Washington’s decision to withhold funding from the World Health Organization and expressing amazement at President Donald Trump’s virus response.
After Trump finally donned a mask last month, Speranza told La7 television: “I’m not surprised by Trump’s behavior now; I’m profoundly surprised by his behavior before.” With America’s world’s-highest death toll of more than 160,000, its politicized resistance to masks and its rising caseload, European nations have barred American tourists and visitors from other countries with growing cases from freely traveling to the bloc.
France and Germany are now imposing tests on arrival for travelers from “at risk” countries, the U.S. included.
“I am very well aware that this impinges on individual freedoms, but I believe that this is a justifiable intervention,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said last week.
Mistakes were made in Europe, too, from delayed lockdowns to insufficient protections for nursing home elderly and critical shortages of tests and protective equipment for medical personnel.
The coronavirus still raging in some Balkan countries, and thousands of maskless protesters demanded an end to virus restrictions in Berlin earlier this month. Hard-hit Spain, France and Germany have seen infection rebounds with new cases topping 1,000 a day, and Italy’s cases inched up over 500 on Friday. Britain is still seeing an estimated 3,700 new infections daily, and some scientists say the country’s beloved pubs might have to close again if schools are to reopen in September without causing a new wave.
Europe as a whole has seen over 207,000 confirmed virus deaths, by Johns Hopkins’ count.
In the US, new cases are running at about 54,000 a day – an immensely high number even when taking into account the country’s larger population. And while that’s down from a peak of well over 70,000 last month, cases are rising in nearly 20 states, and deaths are climbing in most.
In contrast, at least for now Europe appears to have the virus somewhat under control.