COVID-19 is still wreaking havoc globally. Cases in Africa are rising sharply. Hospital systems in many countries, including Nepal, Iran, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, have been overwhelmed. And Japan – currently in a state of emergency – may again postpone the Tokyo Olympics. This year the world will far exceed last year's 1.8 million COVID-19 deaths.
Yet things are improving in America. Indeed, to many Americans the pandemic is disappearing. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently celebrated “extraordinary good news: The virus is losing, and the economy is winning.”
The contrast is striking: A pandemic that many Americans think is in the rearview mirror is still front and center in many countries.
These disparate circumstances are hardly new. As America's GDP has climbed past $65,000 per person, over a billion people elsewhere still live in poverty. And the economic impact of COVID-19 on developing nations has been staggering. As the U.S. economy roars back to growth the World Bank estimates that up to 150 million people will fall into extreme poverty because of the pandemic.
America – yet again – finds itself much better off than most of the world.
What's different now, however, is that because of COVID-19 America’s well-being directly hinges on the well-being of others. This is true not just in the usual, attenuated ways (like reducing the cost of goods through global trade) but through the direct life-and-death connection of a pandemic. Indeed, as the virus rages globally the risk of vaccine-proof mutations reaching America's shores increases proportionally. Like it or not, humanity is in it together.
Perhaps this interconnected fate will diminish one of the worst aspects of our national character: a chilling indifference to the rest of the world. Americans tend to focus on ourselves, on our families, on our communities, on those in our own political, socioeconomic or religious tribes. Our problems tend to be local problems. We fixate on up-close concerns.
Indeed, a more accurate slogan than America First would be America First, Last and Only. We are selfish when it comes to international aid; our contribution is less than one percent of the federal budget. Our politics are dominated by domestic concerns; we are currently haggling over how many trillions to spend on ourselves. And millions of Americans want to build ever-larger barriers at the southern border; many even want to rescind DACA and ship talented American-born kids out of the country.
Part of why Americans have been so self-absorbed is because we could always get away with it. But not now. Not with a still-rampaging virus that respects no national boundary.
One positive that can emerge from the pandemic is that America becomes a more empathetic nation on the global stage. The first ingredient in empathy is awareness of others: You can't value people whose lives are not on your radar. And the plight of people in less-fortunate nations is gaining increased visibility domestically as COVID-19's global wreckage fills our own front pages.
Ideally, this newfound attention on others will foster a lasting concern for foreign nations. Going forward Americans should have a more inclusive view of who matters. We should embrace the principle that every human life has equal value irrespective of where someone was born or what someone looks like.
We are a great nation. But we are not an empathetic one. America has prospered for centuries while maintaining an isolated indifference to the rest of the world. COVID-19 is changing that. We are looking more outward now, and other nations should remain in our field of vision after the pandemic subsides.
Is it understandable that to many Americans America should come first? Sure. But the people of other nations should matter, too.
William Cooper is an attorney and columnist. His writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Baltimore Sun, New York Daily News and USA Today, among others.