The Greatest Country on Earth? The Pride beneath the Pandemic

Photo by Robert Schöller on Unsplash

You’ve heard the question now multiple times: How could the richest country in the world have been so unprepared for the coronavirus?

You’ve also heard answers that range from blaming a dithering president in denial to faulting China for misleading the world about the facts.

But what you may not have heard is that the premise of the question is wrong. Actually the United States is not the richest country in the world.

True, the United States has the largest GDP in the world, but it also has a large population. When GDP is divided by the population, the United States ranks only 13th in the world in per capita GDP. Thus, Americans are on the average poorer than not only those in a handful of oil rich countries but also countries like Ireland and Norway.

The ranking doesn’t improve much for the United States when the measure is changed from per capita GDP to median purchasing power (a more accurate measure of how much money the typical person has relative to the cost of living). By this measure, the United States moves up to 6th place in the world, mainly because the unequal oil-rich countries fall out of the running. Left are four European countries and Australia all richer than the United States.

But when it comes to healthcare, the United States doesn’t spend its modest wealth as wisely as many other countries. Although the United States spends more per capita on healthcare than comparable countries, it struggles to enter the top ten in measures of healthcare outcomes (basically, the likelihood that sick people get well). In fact, in a comprehensive study of the healthcare systems in 188 countries a few years ago, the United States ranked 24th.

This isn’t to say that the United States isn’t the best at some things. After winning the World Cup in the last two global competitions, the United States Women’s National Soccer Team has shown that it’s the best in world. Similarly, Hollywood still has no rival in the global movie business. There are perhaps a hundred other areas in which the United States is a global leader, if not the best.

But the United States isn’t the best at everything, and in fact falls short in many areas. For example, the country ranks only 6th in educational attainment, 25th in math, science, and reading skills, and 17th in how hard the citizens work. In fact, the United States only ranks about 17th on freedom indexes, despite its boast of being the “land of the free.”

The problem is that Americans believe they’re the best at everything — even that they’re the greatest country on earth. This belief prevents them from learning from other countries, and this is among the reasons the United States has emerged the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

Maybe disinformation from China discouraged preparation for the coronavirus by the United States. But nobody is accusing South Korea of disseminating disinformation about the outbreak there. Why didn’t the United States pay more attention to South Korea’s effective response to the coronavirus and learn from it?

It would appear that the United States disregarded the lessons from South Korea in part because it assumed that it is better than South Korea and didn’t need to learn from an inferior.

As it happens, the United States is richer than South Korea. While the United States ranks 6th in median income adjusted for the cost of living, South Korea ranks 8th. (Canada is in between.)

But surely this wealth gap isn’t enough to justify America’s assumption that it could combat the coronavirus more effectively than South Korea. Americans would also have known this if they hadn’t falsely believed that their advantages over South Korea are greater than they are.

Believing itself to be the greatest country on earth, the United States failed to learn from the countries that are really its peers rather than its inferiors. It has therefore blundered into a pandemic that could have been minimized with greater humility — and put the rest of the world at greater risk by doing so.

Ken is a former professor and writer in Costa Rica. His most recent books are “On American Freedom” and “Unfinished Revolution.”

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