When looking back on the pandemic, many Americans will be unable to separate the travails of 2020 and 2021 from their memories of Donald Trump, the president who made the perverse decision to depict their decisions to wear masks as politically motivated criticism of him — and who openly encouraged an attempted coup on Wednesday to keep him in power. But for those who can put this aside in evaluating the U.S. response to the crisis, here’s what will jump out: What should have been the hardest challenge wasn’t at all. And what should have been the easiest challenge has been inexplicably, unacceptably daunting.

On March 11 — when movie stars Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson were revealed to be infected with the coronavirus, the NBA suspended its season after a player tested positive, and millions of Americans grasped that their lives were about to change radically — the idea that scientists could quickly come up with an effective vaccine was dismissed. In the 1960s, when the Merck pharmaceutical company developed a vaccine for mumps in four years, it was considered “the stuff of medical textbook legend,” per the history.com website. After polio was determined to be an infectious disease in 1905, it took medical researchers 48 years to develop an effective vaccination.

But well before March 11, scientists already were making major progress. On Jan. 11, Chinese authorities provided the genetic sequencing of SARS-CoV-2, better known as the coronavirus, to virological.org, a hub for raw scientific data meant to help both researchers and public health officials respond quickly to new health threats. Within weeks, Manhattan-based U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its partner, the German firm BioNTech, had made considerable progress in coming up with a vaccine that worldwide testing eventually showed was more than 90 percent effective in preventing COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The same held for work done by Moderna, a much smaller Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotech firm. Last month, shortly after regulators approved Pfizer’s vaccine, they approved Moderna’s, which was also found to be more than 90 percent effective and is easier to distribute because it doesn’t require extremely low storage temperatures.

Pfizer’s rapid progress in particular astonished Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“We went from a virus whose sequence was only known in January, and now in the fall, we’re finishing — finishing — a Phase 3 trial,” he told a reporter for The Atlantic a month ago. “Holy mackerel.”

Yet this past week, Fauci expressed not astonishment but extreme dismay at how little progress had been made in the United States in getting people vaccinated. As of Thursday, a Bloomberg News tracking site showed that only 5.5 million of the 17.3 million Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that had been distributed to states had been administered, with California having a worse record than the nation overall.

In some states, bureaucratic delays were blamed. In others, there were disputes over who should be prioritized, and infighting that led to vaccines expiring and being thrown out instead of being provided to those in the vicinity who weren’t prioritized. The New York Times reported that some stakeholders argued that social justice should be a factor in giving front-line workers, often people of color, vaccines before the older people at most immediate risk of dying from COVID-19. But if helping front-line workers leads to dead older Black and brown Americans, who are dying at among the highest rates of any groups, that’s not a favor to persons of color generally.

Decisions about who would get the vaccines first should have been made a half-year ago. And in an America half as competently managed as your average supermarket, the logistics of rapid deployment would have long since been worked out.

This dawdling is indefensible. In a competent nation, even if the federal government ducked the lead role in making such decisions, as it did under distracted Donald, states would have quickly set up comprehensive guidelines and began training first responders — and maybe even drugstore clerks — to administer vaccines 24-7. Within hours after vaccines were received, they would be given.

In other words, America would be like Israel. On Monday, The Washington Post reported that the nation is “delivering shots so quickly that it is outstripping its supply of vaccine.”

Imagine that — a country where a once-in-a-century health nightmare was actually treated by leaders like a once-in-a-century health nightmare.

American (and German) scientists deserve an A. American governments deserve an F. As a result of their lapses, the final U.S. COVID-19 death toll — now more than 360,000 and rising — will be far higher than it should have been.

Maybe the next time we have a pandemic, the scientists should be in charge of the paperwork and the logistics, not just the vaccine research — at least if the goal, you know, is keeping people alive.

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