The COVID-19 crisis has handed the countries of the world a simultaneous challenge, akin to a high-stakes reality TV show.

Here’s a new virus; even at a relatively “low” fatality rate of 1%, its unchecked spread will kill millions. The challenge: Bring transmission to a halt, or at least to a level such that life can resume with some evidence-based precautions.

Well, episode one of this reality show is over, and it’s pretty clear we’re a favorite to be booted from the island, kicked out of the house, whatever is done to remove the weakest link.

The countries of the world have all taken their best shot at the challenge, and many have pulled it off, even those that had some early stumbles.

Take Italy: Its northern region was hit hard. Physicians read accounts of what was going on in Italian hospitals and shuddered — this was an advanced country with a robust health care system, how could this happen? Deaths spiked — 969 on March 27, per the New York Times coronavirus tracking site (the source for all the numbers presented here).

But Italy rallied. Lessons were learned. People masked, stayed home and pulled together. New cases peaked in late March at over 6,000 a day, but since then the curve has bent steadily downward, such that by June 17 they were down to 328 daily cases.

Other European countries had less of a catastrophe at the beginning, and have had even better results. Germany peaked at just 315 daily deaths in mid-April; its curve of new cases has also been steadily downward to just 580 cases on June 17.

Austria, geographically between Italy and Germany, fared more like its northern neighbor: As of June 17 deaths are down to zero, new cases are at 14.

A quick scan around the globe shows the same encouraging trend — the graph of new cases moving steadily downward, with the absolute number of new cases (all on June 17) being reassuringly low: New Zealand (the envy of all of us) with zero. Denmark with 44. France with 458. South Korea with 59.

Against that record, how have we stacked up? Dismally. Whereas the graph of new cases for all the previously mentioned countries is a steady downward trend, we are at a plateau, with no discernible movement toward zero. Our deaths peaked at 2,752 on April 15, but as of June 17 over 700 Americans are dying daily.

The count of new U.S. cases is astounding: While other countries are in the hundreds, our new case count is at 25,610. Remember, Germany is at 580. We’re about four times as large a country, so we could feel OK with 2,000.

We’re at 12 times that.

It’s time to acknowledge the obvious: many countries have risen to the challenge of bringing transmission down to a manageable level. The United States, with the world’s largest economy, the most advanced medical care (purportedly), and our ethos of American Exceptionalism, has not met the challenge.

What are the countries whose company we are now in? Brazil, 32,188 new cases. Russia, 7,843 new cases. Iran, 2,612 new cases. Is this the best we can do? Is this when we choose to start having political rallies, open up bars and make wearing a mask some sort of political statement? Evidently, yes.

This is not something we can explain away: Everyone had the same task. Everyone had the same scientific studies to read and learn from. Everyone had the same tools. Some countries met the challenge. We have not.

Perhaps we still can, but with sporadic masking, contradictory advice from state and federal governments, and a president who is actively contradicting advice from public health authorities, our chances are slipping.


Dimitri Drekonja, of Minneapolis, is a physician and associate professor of medicine, University of Minnesota.