Wednesday, 21 Oct 2020

The US set to hit 200,000 COVID-19 deaths, a symbol of national failure

Washington: When Anthony Fauci predicted in late March that up to 200,000 people could die from COVID-19 in the US, the figure seemed beyond comprehension. At that stage less than 3000 Americans had died from coronavirus and President Donald Trump was speaking optimistically about having the country's economy "opened up and raring to go" by Easter.

Just a week later, Fauci, the country's top infectious disease expert, said a US death toll of 60,000 was more realistic. The data showed that physical distancing guidelines were limiting the spread of the virus, offering hope the US would be able to get its outbreak under control.

In April the White House began to muzzle Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.Credit:AP

In fact, Fauci's dire forecast turned out to be an underestimate. On Monday (AEST), the US was poised to burst through the figure of 200,000 deaths, on Johns Hopkins University's numbers, while other measures, such as the Bing-COVID-19 tracker, show the US has already surpassed the figure. The grim milestone cements the US's bleak status as the country with the highest recorded death rate in the world. It's still common for the country to record more than 1000 COVID-19 deaths a day; so common that such numbers are now just background noise in the national conversation rather than major news.

President Donald Trump has held packed indoor rallies, breaching local coronavirus rules. Credit:Getty

Given America's particular vulnerabilities, any US President is likely to have struggled to contain the outbreak. But the Trump administration has been notably inept. First Trump downplayed the virus, saying it would "miraculously" go away; then he pressured state governors to rapidly reopen their economies, ignoring his administration's own guidelines. He put too much faith in illusory miracle cures such as hydroxychloroquine while ridiculing effective prevention tools like face masks. He recently held a packed indoor rally in Nevada where most attendees did not wear masks – a blatant breach of that state's regulations.

A minor bright spot is that more recent surges in COVID-19 cases haven't translated into the huge number of deaths seen early in the pandemic. Doctors have developed better techniques for treating the virus and many of those catching the virus now are young and relatively healthy. A vaccine is hopefully on the way, even if it is likely to take longer to be widely available than Trump suggests.

In the meantime, winter is coming. The colder weather will send people back indoors where the virus can spread more easily. The University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects that 415,000 people will die from COVID-19 by the end of the year – a doubling of the national death toll in just three months. The figure seems hard to believe, but then so did the estimate of 200,000 deaths when Fauci first offered it.

As much as Americans may wish otherwise, their nation's great coronavirus failure is nowhere near over.

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