SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
The nation is engaged in a bit of headline deja vu right now - breaking records for new cases of the coronavirus, around 40,000 new cases reported yesterday, shutting down bars in Texas and Florida trying to stem the rapid spread of the virus through communities, hearing calls to flatten the curve like this one from Vice President Mike Pence during a briefing of the White House Coronavirus Task Force today.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: We stand here today. We believe we've made progress. But as we are reminded as we see cases rising across the South - that we still have work to do.
MCCAMMON: So we wanted to talk with Ed Yong, a staff writer at The Atlantic, to take stock of where we are in this pandemic. He covers science there, which these days means COVID-19. Welcome, Ed.
ED YONG: Hi. Thanks for having me.
MCCAMMON: So the daily record for new cases of COVID-19, we have broken that this week. And I guess I want to start by getting your reaction to that, as someone who's spent basically every working hour, as I understand it, thinking about this pandemic since it hit.
YONG: I mean, it's incredibly dispiriting. We've broken it twice now. Yesterday, we heard 41,000 new cases, the highest ever. We've had more cases this past week than any past week. We've had explosive spikes in Texas and Arizona and Florida and other states, too. People have been warning about this for a long time. And health experts, journalists like myself, were writing about how the nation was still unprepared, that the federal government had not done enough to steel public health and the hospitals enough to control the virus should restrictions lift. Restrictions lifted, and lo and behold, we have spikes of cases.
MCCAMMON: OK, unpack that a little bit if you will. Why are we months into this pandemic and still breaking records when countries who were hit at the same time have almost controlled the spread of the virus?
YONG: There's going to be many factors, but I think the most important one at this point has to be the utter lack of leadership from the Trump administration. To control a pandemic like this in a country as large and decentralized in its health care as the United States requires a solid, coordinated federal hand, and that just has not happened. The administration has floundered. It has left things up to the states.
So, of course, you have what I've written about before as a patchwork pandemic, where the virus has been under control in some places where it was - where it originally hit very hard, but is now taking off and a lot of places in the Sunbelt and the heartland that were previously untouched.
MCCAMMON: Vice President Mike Pence talked today about this increase of cases, especially in much of the South. But he also said we're in a much better place than we were two months ago and outlined some of the steps that had been taken to try to control the virus. Is it true? Are we in a better place than we were two months ago?
YONG: To a degree, we are in a better place in that we have more testing. But there's also more testing that needs to be done because the virus is taking off in a lot of places. So this idea that people still seem to be reaching towards, that this rise in cases is due to us testing more, is just utter nonsense. The rise in cases is out of all proportion to the increase in testing. So it's not just that we're finding more sick people; it's that sick people are easier to find because there are more of them.
MCCAMMON: Ed, you talk about this lack of political leadership as a major driver of this increase in cases we're seeing. How much, though, is related to pandemic fatigue? I mean, it is hard to be constantly vigilant, and it is hard to stay home for a lot of people. What role does that play?
YONG: So it's very difficult to tear those two things apart because they're very much related. This idea that lockdowns, that these stay-at-home orders were just going to protect us in their own right, that was never the intention. The intention was that people would buy the country valuable time to ramp up testing, to ramp up contact tracing, to get our act in gear and mount the extraordinary effort needed to contain this virus. That was the implicit social contract.
And for that time, people, all of us, made extreme sacrifices to our emotional and mental health, to our livelihoods, to our contact with our families and loved ones. And that time, I'm sad to say, was largely squandered by this federal inaction. Yes, it's not quite as bad as it was in March because we do have more resources in play, but it's really not that much better.
MCCAMMON: You talk about sort of social compacts we make to sort of help each other out and try to reduce the spread of the virus. That's hard to do in an environment like this. You know, a lot was made of the idea of coming together early in the pandemic and doing the right thing for the collective good. But we are not united in how we are dealing with this pandemic right now. How much more difficult does it make this challenge of trying to beat this thing?
YONG: So I'll give you a positive take on this, which is that despite everything, despite the rampant misinformation circulating around the pandemic, including from the White House itself, most Americans really did do the right thing. People were incredibly willing to act for the collective good and stay at home for a long period of time. And even now, after states reopened, there was still majority support for social distancing, majority support for mask-wearing across the political spectrum.
Now, yes, we are fraying a little bit. Yes, we are divided because this is a highly polarized nation. But this idea that people are fractured only partly captures the picture. There is more unity. And if only we actually had leadership in place that could capitalize that, that could unify the nation further, America would stand a chance. The reason why it is failing out of all proportion to its stature in the world and completely differently to what other countries are doing is because it has forces acting against the unity of its people, and those include people who are supposed to lead the country.
MCCAMMON: I hear a lot of concern from you about our political leadership. At the same time, I hear, I think, some optimism from you about the number of Americans that do want to solve this and do want to do their part. Do you see a way forward here, and if so, what is it?
YONG: To be honest, I'm - at the moment, I'm not hopeful. I think that the problem is that the country is not psychologically primed for a persistent disaster like this. COVID was never going to be like a hurricane; it wasn't going to hit us and then leave, leaving a safe period in which we could begin the process of recovery.
The virus, like we said many months ago, was going to be here for some time. Can we beat that without coordinated leadership? I'm not sure we can. I'm really not sure. I think people are trying their best. I think individual Americans are trying their best. I think business leaders, many governors and mayors are trying their absolute best. But fragmented and disjointed in the way that we are, I think we're looking at a very, very difficult summer ahead.
MCCAMMON: Ed Yong is a staff writer at The Atlantic who covers science. Thank you so much, Ed.
YONG: Thank you for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.