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America: Utterly unprepared for the perfect storm

New York is closing its bars and restaurants in response to the virus threat. Credit: AP

America is facing a bigger test even than 9/11. Then the enemy came in four aircraft, and the assailants died in their suicide mission.

Now the threat is coming in the form of elusive pathogens and America’s defences are once more facing the wrong way.

The country, despite being filled with brilliant medical researchers and institutes, is preparing, slowly, and with the heaviest heart, to be the next Italy.

That’s because the US government is missing in action. America is horribly ill-prepared for a pandemic on this scale.

There is no serious testing system or infrastructure in place, whatever the White House may say.

I spoke to a senior surgeon at Washington DC’s premier teaching hospital, Georgetown Medstar, and he told me that the facility is already completely full with regular patients.

To my shock, he said no serious preparation had been given to finding new space for the wave of infected patients certainly heading his way.

The medical system here will be overwhelmed in hours, not days. Ventilators will be critical to keeping people alive as they struggle with respiratory difficulties.

America has less than 20,000 ventilators in its national stockpile. Hundreds of thousands may be needed.

Donald Trump is urging Americans not to hoard food and supplies. Credit: AP

America’s problem will be compounded by tens of millions of people who have no medical insurance.

By a homeless population that numbers half a million and that is uniquely vulnerable to Covid19 because of poor hygiene in its tent cities.

Compounded by its high incarceration rates. Crowded prisons will be like cruise ships.

By its high opioid rates, because these addicts are already weakened and facing mental health crises.

Compounded too by the country’s wealth inequality - since the poorest Americans have fallen off the medical grid and cannot afford treatment (yes, testing will be free, according to the White House, but who will pay for the actual treatment?).

Above all, America is exposed because it has wildly erratic and irresponsible political leadership.

Coronavirus: Everything you need to know:

A food vendor hauls his stall through the empty streets of New York City. Credit: AP

Even today - with the pandemic already entrenched in 49 states - President Trump was tweeting about his pet conspiracy theories.

For several weeks, he has consistently dismissed the threat as minor, reassuring Americans that the virus was under control.

Then on Friday he declared a national emergency. But refused to accept responsibility. The buck certainly doesn’t stop with this American president.

The only hope has been intervention by Governors and Mayors who have belatedly stepped into the void.

Tomorrow New York will effectively shut down. Schools will close and so will many of its businesses. The city that never stops will stop.

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As de Blasio wrote: “Our lives are all changing in ways that were unimaginable just a week ago. We are taking a series of actions that we never would have taken otherwise in an effort to save the lives of loved ones and our neighbors."

For all the billions of dollars spent on homeland defence since 9/11, America finds itself woefully vulnerable.

The system was ready for Islamic terrorism. The US has a vast surveillance and intelligence operation in place for humans wishing America harm.

But it had forgotten almost entirely about the risk of a public health catastrophe.

And now a pandemic is certain to wreak far greater damage than that inflicted by the 19 hijackers on 9/11.