In The American Means of Loss of life, Jessica Mitford described the satin-lined coffins, beautified corpses and lavish wreaths of the extortionate US funeral business. What induced the bereaved to pay for such luxuries was not simply their emotional frailty of their second of loss. It was additionally a nationwide tradition that feared and even denied loss of life: that needed to actually costume up the chilly truth of it.

In a viral pandemic, even one 58 years later, we’d anticipate such a nation to hunt to restrict deaths in any respect prices — and people with harsher or extra collectivist histories, reminiscent of China, to put on larger losses. However then what a bonfire of clichés the previous 20 months have been.

The US share of world fatalities from Covid-19 far exceeds its share of the world’s inhabitants. It ranks between Mexico and Romania for deaths per 100,000 individuals. America has additionally been overtaken by Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil on the take-up of vaccines, regardless of having invented a number of of them.

Underneath the maladministration of Donald Trump, these numbers may very well be defined away as one thing aberrant and fleeting: the wages of populism. However Joe Biden has now been president for round half of the length of the pandemic. He was elected largely to comprise it. His failure to take action is the central truth of his presidency.

It is usually a curiously under-discussed one. The US doesn’t have the ambiance of a rustic that’s nonetheless dropping hundreds to the sickness every week. Way more voters identify the economic system as their principal gripe than cite public well being. Biden’s Gerald Ford-ish approval rankings owe quite a bit to excessive retail costs. Had the very best of the Mitford sisters lived to see it, this spectacle would have pressured a revision of her nice e-book. No matter America lacks now, it’s not a capability to look loss of life in eye.

Nor, as Biden is handled to absolution over the pandemic, is there liberal bias at work. He acquired a scarcely plausible quantity of criticism from his personal Democratic occasion over Afghanistan, bear in mind, and that was a US conflict about which he had been presciently pessimistic for greater than a decade.

Administrations that had botched the experiment of state-building in Afghanistan took much less flak than he did for ending it. A politico-media class that had stated little concerning the topic lately discovered its shrill voice.

On the economic system, too, he has lucklessly change into the face and voice of worth inflation that’s actually international in sweep. To the extent that US financial and financial looseness is at fault, a lot of it predates his White Home. Trump handed not one however two huge stimulus bills.

No, if Biden is being excused his pandemic report, it’s on the misplaced premise that he has too many forces ranged in opposition to him to succeed. True, central authorities can solely achieve this a lot in a federal nation with an individualist ethos and an uncooperative opposition. The US was by no means going to put on European ranges of restriction for European lengths of time. Having made free with the licence to socialize and journey, I’m the primary to salute it.

However none of this explains Biden’s string of unforced errors. He got here later to the thought of vaccine mandates than, say, President Emmanuel Macron of France. When he bought there, the coverage was tentative in design and implementation. He has additionally spent most of this 12 months on a social spending invoice whose identify, Build Back Better, slightly assumes that the post-pandemic world is already right here. Because the invoice makes its excruciating passage via Congress, the time and political focus it has drained from the conflict in opposition to the virus change into incalculable.

It’s onerous to know if his prior expertise of presidency makes this lack of government grip tougher to fathom, or a lot simpler. At the least to start with, Barack Obama’s White House, which he served as vice-president, fell for the concept efficient authorities is about individuals of fine religion holding workplace: that first ideas are sufficient. The significance of the grind, of sheer technical slog, dawned on them late, if in any respect. The error recurred upon Biden’s inauguration final January, when a lot of the US left assumed that not being Trump was half the important thing to a resolved pandemic.

It wouldn’t matter a lot if Biden’s report had been of purely home notice. However the US is engaged in an ideological contest with a China that has averted large-scale deaths and a recession. For third nations, weighing the 2 methods, the US efficiency would possibly come to face for that of a complete mode of presidency. The reason for democracy on the planet is beleaguered sufficient with out being related, as within the US, with avoidable losses of life by the tens of hundreds. To suppose, as bleak as issues had been a 12 months in the past, this might all be handed off as one rogue president’s doing.

janan.ganesh@ft.com