Reckoning with National Failure: The Case of Covid

Epidemics are not part of America’s collective memory. The colonial era’s smallpox and yellow fever epidemics, the three cholera epidemics of 1832, 1849, and 1866, the great flu pandemic of 1918 — none of these left a deep imprint on the national consciousness. None fit into a larger national story, at least none that Americans cared to tell. If the polio epidemic of the early twentieth century is remembered, it is mainly because it led to the polio vaccine and fits into a story about the triumph of medical science and American know-how. The AIDS epidemic is still a vivid memory in part because of its effect on the mobilization of the LBGT movement and an expanded vision of human rights. We Americans like our tragedies to have a happy ending.  A practical, inventive, yes-we-can people: that is the version of America many of us remember hearing about and believing in from childhood. Until recently, contagious disease has not troubled that understanding, and for good reason — experience has given us grounds for confidence. Advances in medicine have subdued the most lethal contagions. Disease hangs over all of us individually, but it has not threatened our collective life, much less our sense of ourselves. The Covid19 pandemic, however, will likely figure in our history in a way no previous national encounter with disease in the United States ever has. It is too big and disturbing a horror to be forgotten — not merely a medical story but also a social and cultural one: a story about a country unable to contain the forces of unreason within it. The American response to Covid19 has encapsulated an era when a nation that has always thought of itself as a success has had to confront the possibility that its luck has run out.

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