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Disembarking in a deeply divided America

In this deeply divided nation, there’s nothing that resembles a coherent national plan to tackle a virus that has so far killed more than 134,000 Americans – representing almost a quarter of the global death toll.

By the weekend, the US had recorded 3.2 million infections, including almost 67,000 new cases on Friday alone.

Visitors wear masks at Disney World, which reopened in Florida at the weekend despite climbing COVID-19 cases.

Visitors wear masks at Disney World, which reopened in Florida at the weekend despite climbing COVID-19 cases.Credit:AP

Yet here, an unprecedented health emergency is being viewed largely through the prism of politics. Testing and tracing efforts are ad hoc, often hampered by partisan bickering between state governors and city mayors. Federal leadership is replaced by obfuscation, mixed messages and denial.

Indeed, even wearing a mask is regarded by some as a political statement, and by others as an infringement on their freedom. As one long-term resident of Washington put it to me this week: If you wear a mask, people will likely assume you’re a Democrat; if you don’t, they’ll think you’re a Republican.

I landed in the capital on the night of July 4, just as Trump was hosting a “Salute to America” celebration on the south lawn of the White House.

If you wear a mask, people will likely assume you’re a Democrat; if you don’t, they’ll think you’re a Republican.

Army planes and Black Hawk helicopters put on a spectacular air show as a military band played, while VIPs enjoyed the festivities. Some were not practising social distancing; many, like the President, refused to wear a mask.

Outside, as fireworks lit up Washington Monument, a group of Trump supporters clashed with protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement, prompting police officers to break up the altercation by pushing their way between the two sides.

Presumptive Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden has urged Trump to take the crisis seriously.

Presumptive Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden has urged Trump to take the crisis seriously.Credit:AP

Elsewhere, despite pleas from health experts to scale back Fourth of July events, parties were taking place around the country in flagrant disregard of the warnings – or blissful ignorance of the risks.

One particularly shocking video on Instagram captured a huge crowd of unmasked revellers dancing topless at a sandbar party in Torch Lake, northern Michigan. Not surprisingly, some of them have since tested positive for coronavirus.

With more than 331 million people calling America home, part of the challenge lies in the US’s massive population as well as regional differences. Higher rates of testing also can expose higher numbers of cases. But with the given US mortality rate of 4.2 per cent among the worst in the world, Trump’s denialism has been truly mind-boggling to watch.

Last weekend, he insisted that 99 per cent of coronavirus cases were “totally harmless” – a claim the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, later described as a “false narrative”.

A protester holds an upside-down American flag inscribed with 'Black lives matter' during protests on Independence Day in a Washington street recently renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza.

A protester holds an upside-down American flag inscribed with ‘Black lives matter’ during protests on Independence Day in a Washington street recently renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza.Credit:AP

By mid-week, Trump was pushing schools to reopen or risk federal funding cuts, without articulating a plan to help students return safely.

Then, on Friday, as Florida recorded more than 11,000 new infections, Trump travelled right into the hot zone, attending a fundraiser and speaking at an anti-narcotics summit – where he said next to nothing about the pandemic engulfing the country.

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Trump’s approach to tackling this health crisis seems to be pretending that it doesn’t exist. It does, and you don’t have to look too far to see the human toll of the virus.

In Arizona, where the average number of cases soared 887 per cent after restrictions were lifted in May, one county is now trying to secure a contract for refrigeration trucks to store dead bodies after its morgues hit 97 per cent capacity last week.

Doctors at Memorial City Medical Centre in Houston are so short of gear that nurses are being told to reuse single-use N95 respirator masks for up to 15 days before throwing them out.

And Georgia is planning to reactivate a makeshift hospital at the Atlanta Convention Centre to deal with soaring coronavirus cases.

It’s the kind of stuff that’s hard to fathom in Australia, where even the news of a KFC binge party taking place in the midst of Melbourne’s lockdown was met with alarm and fines.

Sure, there have been serious missteps in Australia’s fight against the virus in recent weeks, but overall, the national cabinet has been cooperative in its approach, health authorities have been relatively swift to isolate outbreaks and the Australian people have been overwhelmingly compliant with the rules.

Compared to Trump’s America, Australia is still the lucky country.

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