Europe suffered a big Covid-19 outbreak in the spring, then subsequently suppressed the virus while the United States continued to struggle. But now cases in Europe are surging once again: France is bringing back a lockdown, the UK is escalating restrictions, and even Germany, widely seen as a coronavirus success story, is again imposing closures, trying to avoid the overwhelming wave of cases that its neighbors are now dealing with.
President Donald Trump has cited Europe’s spike to argue his administration’s handling of Covid-19 wasn’t so bad. “It’s a worldwide pandemic,” Trump said at the final presidential debate. “It’s all over the world. You see the spikes in Europe and many other places right now.”
If Europe couldn’t contain it, the argument goes, then maybe everything that’s happened in the US isn’t so bad, or unique, after all.
The causes of the European spike are part of a familiar story, with experts blaming a mix of pandemic fatigue, complacency, and denial. When the Czech Republic ended its lockdown, its capital, Prague, held a massive public dinner party to celebrate the supposed victory — but the celebration was premature, and the country now has among the highest rate of daily new coronavirus cases in the world.
But Europe’s failure, experts say, doesn’t let the US — or Trump — off the hook.
For one, the US’s coronavirus cases are now surging too, though not as much as in Europe. America reported an all-time record of more than 90,000 coronavirus cases in one day this week. Some states, like the Dakotas, have levels of Covid-19 cases that match those in the hardest-hit European countries, like Belgium and the Czech Republic. The US’s most recent surge started later than Europe’s, but it’s well on its way up.
The US is also still faring worse than most of its developed peers. It reports more daily new coronavirus cases per capita than the majority of developed countries. Canada, after controlling for population, reports a third of daily new Covid-19 cases as the US, and both New Zealand and Australia report less than 1 percent of the cases as America. The US also reports more deaths, after adjusting for population, than most of its developed peers (although deaths tend to lag behind cases, so Europe’s death toll will likely get worse soon).
Trump “is absolutely right this is a global pandemic,” Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told me. “What he’s not right about is that somehow it’s uncontrollable. The truth is there’s lots of countries that have controlled it.” To that end, the US “remains a singularly poor performer,” even as some countries mismanage the virus and see surges, too.
Trump has effectively rejected all of these over the past several months. He’s pushed for states to open up quickly and early, fueling new and continuing Covid-19 outbreaks across the country. Rather than having the federal government take charge on testing and tracing, he’s punted the issue down to the states and private sector — and even pushed his public health agencies to recommend less testing. He’s mocked masks and questioned if they’re even effective, even as the evidence increasingly shows they are.
“What this outbreak gives you is the same problem for every country around the world,” Clare Wenham, a global health policy expert at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told me. “So you can really see the impact of different policies that were launched.” The US’s performance “is a testament to failures of the Trump administration.”
A remaining contrast is how seriously Europe is taking its Covid-19 surge compared to the US. Some European countries are bringing back lockdowns. Others are enacting curfews, more targeted closures, and mask mandates. European leaders have warned that they will take even more aggressive actions if cases don’t stop rising.
Meanwhile, the US has continued to resist action even as the country sees a third surge of Covid-19. Most of the country has reopened, with risky spaces like bars and restaurants now regularly serving customers nationwide. Seventeen states still don’t have mask mandates. Suffering the worst outbreaks in the US today, North and South Dakota have rejected government mandates for social distancing or masking, and Wisconsin’s Republicans have hamstrung the Democratic governor from taking more aggressive actions to slow the virus.
So the current global surge could play out as a repeat of the first several months of the pandemic: The US and Europe both see new outbreaks, and Europe reacts with serious action while the US doesn’t.
The US’s failure on Covid-19 still looms large
Regardless of what Europe is currently going through, it’s clear that the US has failed to contain the coronavirus.
The US is in the top four, out of the world’s 36 developed countries (most of which are European), for Covid-19 deaths per million people. America has roughly six times the death rate as the median developed country.
If the US had the same Covid-19 death rate as Canada, nearly 140,000 more Americans would be alive today, out of more than 225,000 total deaths. If it had the same death rate as Germany, more than 187,000 more Americans would be alive today. If it was like Australia, almost 216,000 more Americans would be alive today.
The US faced unique challenges, given its large size, fragmented federalist system, and libertarian streak. The public health system was already underfunded and underprepared for a major disease outbreak before Trump.
But similar problems also applied to other countries. Australia, Canada, and Germany have federalist systems of government, individualistic societies, or both, and underfunded public health systems. Yet they’ve all fared much better (though cases are now rising rapidly in Germany).
Unlike these other countries, though, the US didn’t take stronger action early and sustain it. America never took social distancing very seriously, with states reopening far before they truly suppressed cases, unlike almost all other developed nations in the spring and summer. It took months to really build up testing capacity — and based on positivity rates, it’s still far behind the likes of Australia. It never developed a national contact tracing system, as South Korea did. It never embraced universal masking, as Japan did.
The clearest evidence was America’s large wave of Covid-19 cases in the summer — a surge that the vast majority of other developed countries, including Europe as a whole, avoided. Unlike much of Europe, the US has never actually suppressed its Covid-19 cases down to zero or more manageable levels — to the point that some experts question if the US is truly seeing a “third wave” right now or if the country is still seeing a continuation of its first wave. Europe, by contrast, is generally understood to be in the middle of a “second wave.”
Without that summer surge, the US could be much closer to its European peers. The US began April at around the middle of the pack among developed countries for confirmed Covid-19 deaths. But the country steadily climbed up the ranks through the rest of spring and then the summer.
“We never really got it under control,” Jha said. “We never brought case numbers down the way most of the Europeans did — partly because we didn’t shut down hard enough, and we didn’t stay shut down long enough.”
There’s no reason it should have played out this way. Before the coronavirus pandemic, a 2019 ranking of countries’ disease outbreak preparedness from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and Nuclear Threat Initiative had the US at the top of the list. Although the report warned that “no country is fully prepared for epidemics or pandemics,” it at the very least suggested that the US should have done better than most other countries. And America very clearly hasn’t.
Again, the failures largely lie with Trump. Even as coronavirus cases have surged again and again, Trump has continued to downplay Covid-19 — telling journalist Bob Woodward, “I wanted to always play it down.” The goal for Trump is to perpetuate a false sense of normalcy that he believes could help him win reelection. He’s continued that even after he got sick himself with Covid-19 — tweeting as he got out of the hospital, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.”
By never taking the coronavirus seriously, though, Trump has ensured that a massive, ongoing Covid-19 epidemic has dominated and will continue to dominate American life until a vaccine is developed and widely distributed.
Much of Europe made the same mistake as the US
Just as some states in the US are doing better, some countries in Europe are too. Germany, for example, has fared better than much of the continent, although it recently brought back some “lockdown lite” restrictions as coronavirus cases increased.
Still, it’s true that Europe is suffering a massive surge of Covid-19 now. Experts say that’s largely because the continent is repeating many of the same mistakes the US made over the past several months.
The constant lesson of Covid-19 outbreaks in the US — whether New York, Florida, or the Dakotas — is that not taking aggressive action quickly enough and sustaining it will leave a place very vulnerable to the coronavirus. Once that happens, cases can very quickly grow, forcing drastic measures over weeks or months to bring things down. The virus has proven, across different states from the spring to now, that it will pierce these vulnerabilities.
One lesson is that “lockdowns do not eradicate the disease,” Kalipso Chalkidou, director of global health policy at the Center for Global Development, told me. They slow it down — which still saves lives — but suppressing cases with a lockdown doesn’t mean a country is cured, the virus is gone forever, and everything can return to normal with no precautions.
Over time, however, countries around the globe have eased up, opening themselves to an outbreak. Experts pin this on a mix of fatigue, as people get tired of dealing with the virus, as well as complacency and denial, as people grow accustomed to the virus or believe that they’ve managed to completely suppress it. That leads to places opening back up, the public going out more, and then outbreaks.
Europe is no different in this regard. After the continent as a whole truly suppressed the virus over the spring and summer, places started to loosen their restrictions. They ended mask mandates. They allowed bars and indoor dining again. They eased up on testing and tracing. The public started to get comfortable, assuming that the virus was gone and things could get back to normal.
“The numbers [in Europe] got low — much lower than the US,” Wenham said. “So people did become more confident.”
The story of Prague, in the Czech Republic, provides an extreme example. When the country ended its lockdown after crushing its Covid-19 curve, the city built a 1,600-foot table for a public dinner party, which organizers described to reporters as a celebration of “the end of the coronavirus crisis.”
Now, the Czech Republic leads all but one other nation, Andorra, in coronavirus cases per capita. The country this month entered a second lockdown — a move that Czech leaders previously claimed wouldn’t be necessary — to avoid overwhelming its health care system.
“I apologize even for the fact that I ruled out this option in the past because I was not able to imagine it might happen,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said. “Unfortunately, it has happened and now, above all, we have to protect the lives of our citizens.”
In that sense, one of the US’s biggest mistakes isn’t completely unique: Other countries have also at times developed a false sense of normalcy around Covid-19.
What makes the US different is how often it has repeated this mistake in the face of outbreak after outbreak. As Jha has told me, “I, at this point, feel like I clearly no longer understand why our country can’t learn its lessons and why we keep repeating the same mistakes.”
With winter coming, Europe is reacting, but America isn’t
Another difference may be emerging between Europe and the US: While European countries are now taking big steps to contain their new Covid-19 surge — including lockdowns — the US appears content with not really doing more than it’s been doing.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows acknowledged as much. In an appearance on CNN, Meadows said, “We are not going to control the pandemic. We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics, and other mitigation areas.” Asked why it won’t be contained, Meadows responded, “Because it is a contagious virus, just like the flu.” (The coronavirus is much worse than the flu.)
In the absence of federal leadership, the policy response has been largely left to the states. That’s led to disparities: While some states have mask mandates and restrictions on indoor dining and large gatherings, others have no statewide rules at all.
North and South Dakota, for example, don’t have mask mandates or any restrictions for businesses, at best providing recommendations that the public and businesses don’t have to follow. That’s continued as the Dakotas have dealt with the two worst ongoing outbreaks in the US.
Elsewhere, the vast majority of states have reopened, with at best limits on capacity in businesses and the size of gatherings, along with weakly enforced guidelines for social distancing. That’s remained true, so far, even as Covid-19 cases have surged.
Most states have mask mandates, but they’re enforced to varying degrees. Contact tracing doesn’t exist at any effective level in all but a few states.
Europe, in comparison, is taking much stronger actions, including lockdowns, curfews, limits on how large gatherings can be, and restrictions on different households interacting with each other. Mask mandates are also widespread. Several countries are trying to scale up contact tracing.
Some European countries have tried less restrictive measures first because, as Wenham said, “no one wants to go into a full lockdown again.” It remains to be seen, given the scale of some of the continent’s outbreaks, if these milder measures will work. Some experts say many places are past the point where weaker actions are enough, so more lockdowns are likely in the future.
Still, at least European countries are collectively trying something. That can’t be said for the US as a whole.
Time may be running out. Throughout the fall and winter, several factors will likely hasten the coronavirus’s spread: Schools will continue to reopen; the cold will push people into indoor spaces in which ventilation is worse and the virus spreads more easily; the holidays will bring friends and family together in potentially large gatherings; and another flu season could strain health care systems. If a place is suffering a high baseline of coronavirus cases as all of that happens, outbreaks could spin further out of control.
With the clock ticking on those issues, and the US not moving to take much more action, the country may once again splinter from Europe and produce yet another unique failure in its response to the coronavirus.
“The countries that remain vigilant and focused have performed the best,” Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, told me. “These surges in cases are not inevitable — they result from the choices we make.”
Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.