The American wayHow the world’s most powerful country is handling covid-19

Contrary to what many Americans think, the death rate in America is about the same as in Europe

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AMERICA HAS passed a grim milestone: 100,000 deaths from a novel coronavirus that began to spread half a year and half a world away. Many Americans think their president has handled the epidemic disastrously, that their country has been hit uniquely hard and that there is a simple causal relationship between the two. The 100,000, which does not include excess deaths mistakenly attributed to other causes, is higher than any other country’s. It has routinely been compared with the 60,000 American casualties in the Vietnam war. A Trump Death Clock in Times Square purports to show how many lives the president’s ineptitude has cost: as we went to press it stood at 60,262. Yet this widespread conviction that America has failed because of Donald Trump is not supported by the numbers. Or, at least, not yet.

The official death rate in America is about the same as in the European Union—which also has excess deaths, but has less erratic leaders and universal health care. Overall, America has fared a bit worse than Switzerland and a bit better than the Netherlands, neither of which is a failed state. New York has been hit about as hard as Lombardy in northern Italy; California acted early and is currently similar to Germany; so far, rural states have, like central Europe, been spared the worst. This reflects two things, both of which will matter now that America is reopening before it has the virus fully under control.

The first is that covid-19, when it first hit, displayed an indifference to presidents and their plans. Around the world it has killed in large, dense and connected cities like New York, London and Paris, and where people are crammed together, including care homes, slaughterhouses and prisons. In some countries, including America, testing was snarled up in red tape.

Having seen what was happening in China, Mr Trump could have acted sooner—as Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam did. He has failed to do things ordinarily expected of an American president in a crisis, such as giving clear government advice or co-ordinating a federal response. Instead, he has touted quack remedies and spent the days when America passed its sombre milestone spreading suspicion of the voting system and accusing a television host of committing a murder that never happened. All this is reprehensible and it may have been costly. Yet, tempting as it is to conclude that the president’s failures bear most of the blame for covid-19’s spread through America, the reality is more complicated (see Briefing).

That leads to the second feature of the country’s response to covid-19. The virus was always going to be hard on a population with high levels of poverty, obesity and diseases such as diabetes, especially among minorities (see Lexington). But, to a remarkable degree, other layers of government have adapted around the hole where the president should have been. The federal system has limited the damage, thanks to its decentralised decision-making. Lockdowns vary by state, city and county. California responded as soon as it saw cases. In the north-east governors largely ignored the White House and got on with coping with the disease, earning the Republican governors of Maryland and Massachusetts the president’s enmity, but high approval ratings. In Florida, though the governor was reluctant to impose a lockdown, county officials went ahead and did so anyway.

Contrary to demands for nationwide rules, this is a strength not a weakness, and will become more so as the pandemic runs its course. In the best-organised states, which have built up testing capacity, it helps ensure that flare-ups can be spotted quickly and rules adjusted accordingly. Because each region is different, that is more efficient than a nationwide approach.

One way democracies can deal with the virus is to draw on reserves of trust. People must behave in ways that protect fellow citizens whom they have never met, even if they themselves are feeling fine. Americans trust their local officials far more than the president or the federal government. And when it comes to public health those local officials have real power. Without this balancing feature, America might today look like Brazil, where a president with a similar love of hydroxychloroquine and distaste for face masks is wreaking havoc (see article).

If the public-health response in the United States so far matches Europe’s, its economic response to the virus may turn out better. True, the unemployment rate in America is 15%, double that in the EU. Yet in Europe most governments are protecting jobs that may no longer exist once lockdowns end rather than focusing help on the unemployed as America’s has. The EU is probably delaying a painful adjustment. Congress, not known for passing consequential legislation with big bipartisan majorities, agreed on a vastly bigger fiscal stimulus than in the financial crisis a decade ago. With a Democrat in the White House and a Republican-controlled Senate, America might not have mustered a response that was either so rapid or so large.

America still has a hard road ahead. Were daily fatalities to remain at today’s level, which is being celebrated as a sign that the pandemic is waning, another 100,000 people would die by the end of the year. To prevent that, America needs to work with the system it has, trusting local politicians to balance the risks of reopening against the cost of lockdowns.

In the next months the infrastructure built during the lockdown must prove itself. Because the virus has yet to decline in some states, it may flare up in new places, which will then need targeted lockdowns. The capacity to test, vital to spotting clusters of infection, has increased, but is still lacking in some places. Almost all the states lack the contact tracers needed to work out who needs testing and quarantining. When it considers how to withdraw fiscal support, Congress should remember this.

That America and Europe have fared similarly in the pandemic does not absolve Mr Trump. This is the first international crisis since 1945 in which America has not only spurned global leadership but, by cutting funds to the World Health Organisation, actively undermined a co-ordinated international response. That matters, as does Mr Trump’s inability to cleave to a consistent message or to speak to the country in words that do not enrage half of the population. Yet four years after Mr Trump was elected, the time to be surprised by his behaviour has long gone. Luckily, he has mattered less than most Americans think.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline "The American way"