Coronavirus: Has America ever been this humbled?

Katty Kay
Presenter, BBC World News
@KattyKayBBCon Twitter

  • Published
Nurses pick up personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies at a New York State emergency operations incident command centreImage source, Reuters
Image caption,
Nurses pick up personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies in New York

In one short week, the United States has gone from being the world's superpower, to asking nurses to sew their own protective gowns and masks.

In the early phases of this war, the country has failed miserably. Miserably.

Yes, every country has been stretched. This is clearly not easy. Italy, Iran, France, Spain, the UK have all been hit hard and struggled to rise to the challenge of this pandemic.

But America is meant to be different. How often do we hear people say this is the strongest country in the world? It's a feeling that produced a sense of invulnerability. Is that why it took so long for the US to accept this wasn't a foreign problem?

And there's been a reluctance over the years to learn from other countries' healthcare systems because the greatest country in the world believed it had the greatest healthcare in the world. In this fight that's a sham.

Compared to South Korea, Germany or Singapore, the US today takes no prizes for a great response to Covid-19.

Doctors are terrified. They know America's hospitals are about to be hit by a tsunami of infected patients and they don't have enough beds or ventilators to treat them. They don't even have basic protective gear to keep their staff healthy. The Governor of New York today asked factories and businesses to switch gears to produce what's needed to keep the hospitals running.

I lived here during 9/11. That was a huge shock to America's sense of security but the response was different. It was confident. Misguided, quite possibly, but confident. The country could respond with massive military force. Here a critical weakness at the heart of the American system has been exposed.

Media caption,

Coronavirus: Five countries, five responses

Some of America's adversaries might revel in that failing. There's nothing to revel in here. We're all better off when the nation with the biggest economy and the biggest military in the world is healthy and strong and functioning well. It's scary to see the US like this.

Yet even now, there are glimmers of hope.

The country's government has been woefully underprepared but its famous entrepreneurial spirit is kicking in. We hear stories of distilleries retooling to produce alcohol cleansers. My son's university, which is closed to students, sends a daily email to parents - today it told us the medical department has already developed its own test for the virus.

I have no doubt that American businesses will heed Governor Cuomo's call and start making surgical masks. I hope they do so soon, so that American nurses don't have to.

And maybe a little humility is no bad thing.