On Thursday morning, as rates of coronavirus infection continued to soar around the country, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, tried to relay just how serious the state of the pandemic is in the United States.
“Doctors Without Borders have come to the United States to do their work. They go to the hottest spots in the world, they look at the Earth and say ‘Where are we needed?’ Well, they’re needed here in the United States right now,” he said on CNN’s New Day.
This was evidence that the pandemic is a “humanitarian disaster,” Gupta continued.
A clip of his remarks went viral on Twitter, with more than a few responders lamenting the fact that Trump had turned the U.S. into “a third-world” or “developing” country.
Doctors Without Borders reached out to clarify that they’ve actually been in the United States since April working on several projects related to the pandemic—including trainings on infection prevention. But, because the international humanitarian nonprofit is known for aiding people who live in conflict zones or areas affected by endemic diseases, the nuances of that work—or the organization’s presence in other nations with developed economies, like France and Italy—was lost.
Nonetheless, the knee-jerk reactions were noteworthy because they played into the same flawed ideas of American exceptionalism that have defined the response to the coronavirus. The archaic phrase “third-world”—which arose during the Cold War era as a way to demarcate nations in various stages of economic development—has always told us less about how well a country is actually doing than we’d like to believe. (I’ll also admit here that, having been born in and spent a substantial portion of my life living in countries with emerging economies, I’ve found the term more than a little insulting.)
But well before the coronavirus pandemic, America’s lagged behind much of the world on several key indicators—no matter how developed the economy. Income inequality? According to data from the World Bank, the United States has a Gini Index coefficient of .42 (the scale toggles between 0.0, for perfect equality, and 1.0, perfect inequality), making its income inequality ranking similar to Cote d’Ivoire, Argentina and Haiti. In some cities, like Miami, New Orleans, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, that rate is far worse.
If you were to measure the world according to gender inequality, you’d find the United States comes 51st out of 149 countries: slightly behind Cuba and Mexico, and substantially behind Nicaragua, the Philippines and Namibia, all of which ranked in the top 10 for gender parity.
Were we to look at another health metric—maternal mortality rates—we’d find that the World Bank rates the United States 56th; birthing parents are less likely to die during childbirth in Iran and Kazakhstan than in the U.S. (Not surprisingly, among our industrialized peer countries, America ranks last.) And, as The Root has reported over the years, America’s maternal mortality rates are profoundly shaped by systemic racism, with Black birthing parents far more likely to die due to pregnancy complications than their white counterparts.
This distinction of “third” and “first” world becomes even more useless when we think about the coronavirus specifically. Many countries with emerging economies have actually done much better than their industrialized counterparts in managing the coronavirus—a fact that has left many journalists and public health experts scratching their heads. Countries such as Thailand, Rwanda, Niger, and Cambodia have all seen stunningly low rates of infection throughout the year, and Western news outlets were quick to express puzzlement at that very fact. That so many people could find these facts shocking suggests that we’ve all internalized the belief that wealth—or more specifically, GDP—ought to keep you healthier. That it ought to save you, to a certain degree; even if we can look at many parts of America—urban and rural—and see that this is not the case. Despite hundreds of years of policies codifying racial caste and concentrating poverty in destitute, under-resourced communities—policies that we see manifested in the health of our physical bodies—some Americans believe sickness shouldn’t happen here the way it does in other places.
An unflinching belief in American exceptionalism rots brains, and folks across the political spectrum are equally susceptible to it, though they may express it in different ways. America has been a “conflict zone” throughout its history, its endemic problems as visible now as they have ever been. Despite our status as the world’s lone superpower, if anyone needs humanitarian assistance, it’s us.
This country is sick and has been for some time now. Only a uniquely American arrogance would have us deny it.