How To Fix The Weaknesses The Pandemic Exposed In The U.S. NPR's Rachel Martin talks to Bloomberg Editor-in-chief John Micklethwait — coauthor of The Wake-Up Call — who says the pandemic has revealed weaknesses in the U.S., and lays out a way to fix it.

How To Fix The Weaknesses The Pandemic Exposed In The U.S.

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/940038001/940038002" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The United States has continued to set unwelcome records this fall. The country is seeing more than 150,000 new cases of the coronavirus every day. And we got to a point last week where one person was dying every minute. Just think about that for a moment - one person every single minute. The CDC urged Americans not to travel for Thanksgiving. But the fact is airports saw their highest foot traffic since the middle of March. Here's how Dr. Anthony Fauci summarized the situation on ABC's "This Week" over the weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK WITH GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS")

ANTHONY FAUCI: We may see a surge upon a surge. You know, we don't want to frighten people. But that's just the reality. We said that these things would happen as we got into the cold weather and as we began traveling. And they've happened. It's going to happen again.

MARTIN: This moment has got John Micklethwait thinking, how did we get here and what to do now? He's the editor-in-chief of Bloomberg. And his new book, co-authored with the economist Adrian Wooldridge, is titled "The Wake-Up Call: Why The Pandemic Has Exposed The Weakness Of The West And How To Fix It." Thanks for being here, John.

JOHN MICKLETHWAIT: Thank you so much, Rachel.

MARTIN: You argue that the pandemic has revealed, in painful detail, that the U.S. is falling behind much of the world in most of the functions of government. How so?

MICKLETHWAIT: Well, the main evidence of the disease is really simple. Very sadly, America is now around 800 deaths for every million people. And if you compare that with other places like - I don't know - Germany is six times better. It's around 150 deaths for every million people. But you really - when you go to East Asia, you find these countries like Japan, South Korea, Singapore. They're all around 20 or 30 deaths for every million people. So they're about 20 or 30 times better. And what's interesting to me is that that isn't - doesn't seem like a fluke once you begin to look at things like league tables for education or for health care. And it looks much broader than that. So that's one element in which we're facing a wake-up call.

The second thing for America is China. China claims a number of three deaths for every million people. And maybe they're exaggerating. Maybe they're hiding deaths. But even if they're hiding nine out of 10 deaths - and Bloomberg probably has more journalists than anybody else in China, and we don't think it's that level. But imagine they are. There are up around 30 deaths for every million people. That would still be 20, 30 times better than America.

And so I think it really is one of those things where you look at it, and you wonder whether history is being changed. And the message to America is, you've got to do something about this because it's part of a wider problem with government in America.

MARTIN: You point to just - the facts are the facts about the pandemic and how horrible it has been in this country. And you tick off failures in health care, education. Can you make that connection for me? What does it reveal about the fragility of the entire American system?

MICKLETHWAIT: Well, I think it's - I mean, there's a lot of things at the moment where particularly if you're Joe Biden, there is the kind of false excuse, I think, of blaming Donald Trump. I'm not trying to claim Donald Trump handled the pandemic particularly well. But if you look at the evidence, a health care system that is orientated towards looking after the old and the rich was bound, I think, to be - to fail with a pandemic because it hits the poor disproportionately.

You look at many of the other things that Donald Trump was blamed for - racist policing. I think I first appeared on NPR back when Rodney King was happening in Los Angeles. And I was a correspondent there. That's been going on for a long time. The schools in America - if you look at the international league tables, America's around - depending, you know - 17th in reading. I think it's about 38th in math. I mean, it's a long way behind. Those things have been going on for a long time.

And behind it, I think there is a problem with government. And, as you know, I came from The Economist. I'm one of those people who believes fervently in the free market. But the lesson of COVID is really simple - is that government matters. It was the difference between living and dying. And the numbers are - it's nothing to do with culture. It's simply to do with making things work. If you look at Seoul, London and New York, they're all about the same size. Seoul's a very busy, modern city with all these many things. And yet New York's over 20,000 deaths. And Seoul's - barely 50, 60 people have died.

MARTIN: Just in seconds remaining, to briefly push back, I mean, South Korea is just an entirely different culture and society than the United States.

MICKLETHWAIT: It is a different society. But Seoul is a very modern place. This is a big, vibrant...

MARTIN: It's more - I mean, America's the largest pluralistic, democratic experiment in the world. And...

MICKLETHWAIT: It is. But I don't think the things that you need to do to make government work fundamentally contradict that. I think that if you need to make schools better, you need to promote good teachers and be prepared to get rid of bad ones. If you look at the way that these Asian countries - what they've done is they've done exactly the same as America's private sector has done. They were much better. If you look at the private sector in America...

MARTIN: Yeah.

MICKLETHWAIT: ...When the Japanese came up with smaller, better cars, America copied it. Singapore has come up with smaller, better government. It hasn't copied - and America hasn't copied it. And other Asian countries are copying it.

MARTIN: Lessons, perhaps, to be learned by looking abroad for the incoming Biden administration. John Micklethwait of Bloomberg, thank you for your time.

MICKLETHWAIT: Thank you so much.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

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.