Nothing could be more normal than to regard the ceaseless spread of COVID-19 across the United States as a public health crisis. Indeed, as many commentators have called it, this pandemic is the preeminent public health crisis of the past century. As almost everyone knows by now, not since the 1918 flu pandemic have the lives and livelihoods of so many Americans—or people elsewhere, for that matter—been so gravely threatened by the uncontrolled spread of a single infectious disease.
With the availability of new vaccines, however, this crisis is shifting into a new and completely different phase. The public health challenge is, of course, not going away. But alongside it will come something that most Americans still have little perception of—that the next stage of the pandemic will pose one of the most important challenges to the country’s international standing since the Second World War.
Yes, one might object, Donald Trump’s entire presidency, down to its increasingly desperate and openly corrupt final days, can be read as a challenge not only to America’s democratic institutions and traditions but also to its prestige in the world. Breathless as it was, with its incessant, nearly daily transgressions that chipped away at a national façade long assumed to be solid, though, that steady erosion under Trump was hard to measure.