The biggest challenge to America’s coronavirus response? Trump.

“President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States has so far been a disaster.

He initially downplayed the severity of the outbreak at home, directly contradicting his top health officials. He’s displayed a stunning lack of knowledge about basic things like how vaccines work and how quickly a coronavirus vaccine could realistically be developed and distributed to Americans. And he’s publicly spread misinformation about how deadly the disease, officially known as Covid-19, is.

All of that is extremely counterproductive to effective crisis response, especially for dealing with something so complicated as the novel coronavirus.”

““This isn’t a normal crisis,” Konyndyk said, “and atypical crises require real leadership from the top to solve.””

“I, along with others, got to meet President Obama for a few minutes in the Oval Office because of our Ebola work. The moment I walked in, he started quizzing me about the Ebola burial teams, which was an important but fairly detailed element of the overall response. The fact that he was aware of those teams, and could ask me detailed questions about them, absolutely blew my mind.

You just don’t see that attention to detail with Trump. I really sympathize with the people who are working on this response within the government right now. Remember: It’s many of the same people — in fact, it’s mostly the same people — that worked on Ebola and other crises. They’re all career people.

What that tells you is that the team isn’t a determining variable here. The president is.”

“Think back to when Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma hit the US in 2017. Both of those were standard-issue, major hurricane events. They hit states in the mainland United States that were well prepared and had strong disaster management agencies. The government response therefore was mostly fine — bureaucracies were set up for moments like that.

But when you have nonstandard crises — like what Hurricane Maria did to Puerto Rico or this coronavirus outbreak — they require a president to get the government out of its comfort zone, to push it to do something it is not built to do. There’s really no one else in the government to do that.” 

“There were all these different moving pieces that all sat in different parts of the federal government. They weren’t put together to facilitate a coherent response. It really took presidential leadership and the installation of a “czar” to finally bring order to that chaos. Ultimately, it was President Obama making very abundantly clear, to the entire federal bureaucracy, that this was a first-tier priority for him and that everyone needed to step up.

The other really important element to that was also not accepting business-as-usual rationales from the agencies.

There were many times during the Ebola response in 2014 when I, on behalf of my team, or others in the government, would be getting pressed by the White House to do something. We would say, “Look, we can’t do that,” or, “We’re working as hard as we can.” And the White House, to their credit, would come back with some variation of, “Well, that’s all well and good, but it’s not getting the job done.””

“President Trump’s insistence that the strategy of keeping the disease out of the country was succeeding really handicapped the rest of the response. Here’s why: It makes it harder for the government to plan for the moment the strategy stops working. That’s critical in this kind of situation.

The whole point of an overseas containment strategy is to buy you time. It delays the arrival of an outbreak in a country, but it cannot ultimately stop it. You’re not, or you shouldn’t be, hoping that that will be all that you need to do.

I don’t think the president understands that, and I don’t know how openly his team dissuades him of that view.”

“The first time a US official talked about a pivot to preparedness was when the Centers for Disease Control’s Nancy Messonnier detailed last month how she’d started talking to her kids about the disruption they might face in their lives. And the president and his allies went ballistic. It’s a microcosm of the dynamic at play here, that even acknowledging the reality that this strategy might not fully work or might not be fully sufficient set the president off.”

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