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What the pandemic can teach the U.S.

Photo for What the pandemic can teach
Panel from a Covid-19 prevention poster in Vietnamese. (Image: via Wikimedia Commons, 2020; cropped). CC0 1.0 (public domain).

A Q&A with the new assistant director of the UCLA Latin American Institute, Bryan Pitts, who reflects on how the U.S. has handled the Covid-19 crisis and how an increased willingness to learn from other countries could improve our ability to address future crises.

How would you compare the U.S. response to the Covid-19 crisis to that of other countries?

The United States leads the world in COVID-19 diagnoses and deaths. The richest, most powerful country in the world has been brought to its knees by a virus. Politicians refuse to issue mask mandates and are re-opening businesses too soon.

Our failure to contain COVID-19 while countries with far fewer resources have practically eliminated it should serve as a wake-up call for Americans. Certainly the lack of leadership from Washington has compounded the crisis. But if we had taken the response of countries such as South Korea more seriously, if we had bothered to learn anything about the techniques employed elsewhere, it’s likely that far fewer than 245,000 Americans would be dead now.

Clearly the views of the current administration have greatly impacted the U.S. response to the pandemic. Do you believe there are other factors at play?

Historian Bryan Pitts, assistant director of the UCLA Latin American Institute. (Photo provided by Bryan Pitts.) Even if we had a different president, the American people would likely be unaware that the rest of the world has started to figure this virus out.

In my travels, I have been struck by how comparatively insular the United States is, despite being home to more immigrants than any other country. We listen to American music, we watch American movies, and we recoil from subtitles and songs we don’t understand. Only 42 percent of us have a valid passport. Two-thirds of us cannot find the United Kingdom on a map, to say nothing of Paraguay, Guinea-Bissau or Laos.

We are a vast country, whose land borders with other countries are, for the most part, sparsely populated. We have the world’s most fearsome military and its most powerful corporations. We dominate the global music and entertainment industry, so perhaps a certain level of insularity is to be expected. We need strong international education to push back against this.

Taking the pandemic as an example, how can the U.S. better learn from the rest of the world? How can this approach change international education for the better?

Amidst a once-in-a-century public health crisis that has generated a once-in-a-century economic crisis, we can no longer afford to learn about the rest of the world simply because we want to expand American influence, or because we think we have something to offer to the “developing world.” Our very lives depend upon learning how countries with far fewer resources have managed to control a virus that continues to rampage through the U.S., especially communities of color, with no sign of abating.

Historically, international education has existed primarily to help the next generation of American businesspeople, diplomats, teachers and aid workers advance national economic and geopolitical interests. Of course, if government is going to fund international education and language training, this makes sense. But are expanding our political and economic influence and protecting national security our only national interests?

Mightn’t national interests also be served by seeing what we can learn from others? Taking COVID-19 as an example, Ghana developed a pooled testing technique to test more people with fewer resources. South Korea utilized sophisticated and comprehensive contact tracing. Mongolia began testing and issued an advisory to begin wearing masks as early as January – as of early November, the country has zero Covid-19 deaths. Vietnam instituted aggressive isolation measures, not only for Covid-19 patients, but for their contacts; the country of 98 million has a total of 35 deaths from the virus.

Covid-19 prevention poster in Vietnamese. (Image: via Wikimedia Commons, 2020).  CC0 1.0 (public domain).  
The bottom of the poster refers a reader to the website of the Ministry of Health of Vietnam for more information.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, my region of expertise, Cuba has hospitalized all confirmed cases and experimented with a variety of treatments, provided free through its universal health system; its death rate is 1.7% that of the United States. Uruguay has combined aggressive testing with painstaking contact tracing; its death rate is 2.4% of what ours is, despite sharing a border with Brazil, one of the most hard-hit countries on the planet. Several Caribbean countries have kept cases low by implementing shared protocols for allowing foreign visitors, including requiring a negative COVID-19 test before departing their home country.

Why have we not looked to these countries, with their highly trained public health specialists who are used to doing more with less, and who often have far greater experience with epidemics than we do?

Looking beyond COVID, how does Brazil, a country with a fraction of our GDP, provide free, universal healthcare while we have millions of uninsured? How did China pour more concrete in three years than we have poured in the entire 20th century? How is Mexico preserving indigenous languages and cultures while ours struggle to survive?

We don’t know about these measures because we don’t ask, and we don’t ask because our hubris makes us think there is nothing to know. Moving forward, it is vital that international education in the United States incorporate, at every level of education, an emphasis on what we can learn from other countries, particularly those who are usually seen as targets of American aid rather than innovators from whose example we could benefit.


Bryan Pitts is a historian of 20th century Brazil. He received an M.A. from Vanderbilt University (2006) and a Ph.D. in Latin American History from Duke University (2013) and came to UCLA after two years as associate director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Indiana University. His book manuscript, titled "Until the Storm Passes: Politicians, Social Movements, and the Demise of Brazil’s Military Dictatorship," explains the fall of Brazil’s military regime in light of the changes it wrought on the dispositions and actions of the civilian political elite.

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