How did America become a pariah nation of super-spreaders?
In this file photo taken on February 21, 2013, a Delta Airlines jet takes off from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. – US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and major US airlines reached an agreement on April 14, 2020, on aid to pay workers and avoid bankruptcies in an industry that employs 750,000 people amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Everyone I know has a place to which they dream of going when travel once again becomes easy or, more importantly, safe. Some imagine a journey to visit family in another part of our country. One friend hopes to fulfill her lifelong ambition of seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland. And lately, since my Italian friends have been posting, on social media, images of the empty streets of Rome, the placid canals and under-populated piazzas of Venice, I’ve found myself counting the days until I can visit Italy, the country (other than my own) where I’ve always felt happiest, most comfortable, most at home. I’ve fantasized how many masks and bottles of hand sanitizer it would require for me to take advantage of the cheap flights and ignore the obvious risks of transatlantic travel – and meet my friends for a dish of fried artichokes and spaghetti alle vongole in my favorite outdoor trattoria in Trastevere.
But now, it seems, the bad news about our political situation has once again intensified the terrible news about the virus. And it’s begun to appear that even if we wanted to travel to Europe – even if we had the money and were willing to take a that considerable risk – we might not be allowed to go.
Over the past days, the European Union has announced it is considering excluding Americans from the list of travelers who will be admitted to EU countries when their borders open up on 1 July. It’s not a matter of politics, not retaliation for the fact that Donald Trump has banned travelers from Europe from entering the United States, but a more commonsense scientific decision based solely on criteria having to do with health: America has done such a poor job of controlling the Covid-19 outbreak that our infection rate is increasing dramatically while that of most European nations (and others such as Cuba, China, and Vietnam) is either remaining stable or decreasing. We’re simply too dangerous – too likely to bring the deadly virus along with the more welcome (and needed) tourist dollars.
Clearly, it’s not a decision that will be made lightly. American tourists contribute heavily to the European economy, and a travel ban will significantly affect the ability of American companies to do business abroad. But unlike the US states that rushed to reopen too soon, that so clearly prioritized economic recovery over human life, the EU countries are saying they’d rather take the financial hit than see more of their citizens die. Of course, given the current state of our economy, it’s unlikely that all that many Americans will be able to afford that dream trip to Paris this summer, even if we were allowed entry into France. Still, it’s a strange feeling: in just a few months, we’ve become a pariah nation. We’ve gone from being admired for our spirit, our culture, our stalwart devotion to freedom despite our government’s persistent attempts to curtail those freedoms – and are now being viewed as a nation of super-spreaders, a danger to our own health and that of the hotel reception clerk, the waiter at the café, the two innocent grandmas with the bad luck to sit at a table too near the Americans sipping their morning cappuccino.
It’s a clear rebuke to the way that Donald Trump has handled the Covid-19 crisis: refusing to take it seriously, promising that the virus will “fade away”, advocating unproven cures, and (perhaps most unbelievably of all) suggesting that wearing a mask is a political gesture: a sign that we don’t like him. But given that Trump has proven himself incapable of being embarrassed by anything – except perhaps the low turnout at one of his rallies – it seems unfair that we should be the ones who are being made to feel ashamed of what has happened to the ways in which the world views us.
And yet as much as I’d like to like to blame Trump for the tragic way in which this crisis has played out, the truth is that it’s large but not entirely his fault. Blame must also be laid at the feet of the governors who ignored the CDC warnings and rushed to re-open their states, and on a system that lacks a safety net to help us through crises like this, so that people are forced to choose between going to work and possibly getting sick – or letting their families go hungry and lose their homes.
But finally, if the Europeans don’t want us anywhere near them, some of the responsibility lies with those Americans who so proudly and fiercely insist on their God-given freedom to spread the virus.
Trump has consistently modeled bad behavior by refusing to wear a mask. He has unconscionably tried to turn the question of mask-wearing into yet another battle in the culture wars, but so far he has not made it illegal to wear a mask and to help stop the spread of infection. Being safe and smart is still our individual prerogative. So if you’re concerned about the poor job we have done in keeping our neighbors and loved ones from dying, about the sharp spike in infections and hospitalizations, and now about the fact that we might not be allowed to travel to the destinations we have been dreaming about during this long quarantine, you might want to look in the mirror. And see if you are wearing a mask.
Francine Prose is a novelist and the former president of PEN America