Unusually inept: On US surpassing China in coronavirus cases

The U.S. can still pull itself out of the virus crisis, but not without tougher steps

March 31, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

The  U.S. has surpassed mainland China as the country with the most number of novel coronavirus cases . On March 27, it recorded 85,486 infections; On March 30, it had nearly 75% (1,43,527) more cases than China (82,198). Even as Italy and Spain have reported large numbers, the daily increase in new cases has slowed down in Europe even while accelerating in America, thus shifting the pandemic epicentre to the U.S. However, unlike in China and a few other countries, America is yet to institute large-scale mitigation measures such as shutting down the three major hotspots —New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. On Saturday, U.S. President Trump backtracked on the possibility of imposing travel quarantine in these hotspots after a pushback from the New York Governor. New York has the most number of cases in the country — over 53,000, as on March 29. According to the CDC, residents in these hotspots are now “urged” to refrain from non-essential travel for the next 14 days. It is true that Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea managed to contain the spread without having to undertake stringent measures such as those seen in China, Italy, and even India. That is because these countries acted early, enforcing strong containment measures together with large-scale testing; this is not the case with America.

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Though South Korea and the U.S. reported their first case on January 20, it was only by end-February that the U.S. had a reliable test kit, unlike South Korea, which had the tests by February first week. While South Korea was testing thousands each day after the wave of cases came up in a hospital and among members of a religious sect, the U.S. began large-scale testing only in early March. America thus remained largely oblivious to the looming threat. There were just about 100 tests done each day till end-February. If the tests developed by the CDC were faulty, the testing criteria remained narrow and there was little surveillance for community spread. The FDA’s public health emergency, on January 31, did not make things easy for labs wanting to develop tests. Independent labs and hospitals could start testing using tests developed by private players only by February 27. As on March 28, hardly 1,22,000 tests had been done in the U.S. Instead of decisive actions, Mr. Trump made the situation worse with his dismissive attitude, this despite knowing that the virus was crippling China’s health-care system and had killed a few thousands. If agencies such as CDC, which are known to act swiftly especially in the face of a pandemic, were found wanting this time, the government’s priorities too were misplaced. The deadly combination is now playing out. But knowing how the U.S. can act, there is still hope of virus control. Tough steps need to be in place soon.

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