“If you believed the Republican National Convention, you’d think President Donald Trump has taken unprecedented action to defeat the Covid-19 pandemic. He bragged about the US doing more testing than any other country, the approval of new treatments, support for Americans hit hard by the economic downturn, and his work to expedite a vaccine.
“To save as many lives as possible, we are focusing on the science, the facts, and the data,” Trump said. “We are aggressively sheltering those at highest risk — especially the elderly — while allowing lower-risk Americans to safely return to work and school.”
Experts, and the data, tell a very different story — one in which Trump has let Covid-19 win.”
“A pandemic was always likely to be a challenge for the US, given the country’s large size, fragmented federalist system, and libertarian streak. The public health system was already underfunded and underprepared for a major disease outbreak before Trump.
Yet many other developed countries dealt with these kinds of problems too. Public health systems are notoriously underfunded worldwide. Australia, Canada, and Germany, among others, also have federalist systems of government, individualistic societies, or both.
Instead, experts said, it’s Trump’s leadership, or lack thereof, that really sets the US apart. Before Covid-19, Trump and his administration undermined preparedness — eliminating a White House office set up by the previous administration to combat pandemics, making cuts across other key parts of the federal government, and proposing further cuts.
Once the coronavirus arrived, Trump downplayed the threat, suggesting it would soon disappear “like a miracle.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) took weeks to fix botched tests, and the administration actively abdicated control of issues to local, state, and private actors.”
“A few other developed countries — including Belgium, France, and Italy — were caught off-guard by the Covid-19 pandemic and were hit hard early, suffering massive early outbreaks with enormous death tolls. But after those outbreaks, these countries and those around them generally took Covid-19 seriously: implementing lengthy and strict lockdowns, widespread testing and contact tracing, masking mandates, and consistent public messaging about the virus.
The US did not, even after an outbreak spiraled out of control in New York. It was this failure to act even after a major epidemic, and a continued failure to implement stronger measures as other large outbreaks occurred, that makes the US unique.”
“During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, President Barack Obama’s administration realized that the US wasn’t prepared for a pandemic. Jeremy Konyndyk, who served in the Obama administration’s Ebola response, said he “came away from that experience just completely horrified at how unready we would be for something more dangerous than Ebola,” which has a high fatality rate but did not spread easily in the US and other developed nations.
The Obama administration responded by setting up the White House National Security Council’s Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, which was meant to coordinate the many agencies, from the CDC to the Department of Health and Human Services to the Pentagon, involved in contagion response.
But when John Bolton became Trump’s national security adviser in 2018, he moved to disband the office. In April 2018, Bolton fired Tom Bossert, then the homeland security adviser, who, the Washington Post reported, “had called for a comprehensive biodefense strategy against pandemics and biological attacks.” Then in May, Bolton let go the head of pandemic response, Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, and dismantled his global health security team. Bolton claimed that the cuts were needed to streamline the National Security Council, and the team was never replaced.
In the months before the coronavirus arrived, the Trump administration also cut a public health position meant to detect outbreaks in China and another program, called Predict, that tracked emerging pathogens around the globe, including coronaviruses. And Trump has repeatedly called for further cuts to the CDC and National Institutes of Health, both on the front lines of the federal response to disease outbreaks; the administration stood by the proposed cuts after the pandemic began, though Congress has largely rejected the proposals.
The Trump administration pushed for the cuts despite multiple, clear warnings that the US was not prepared for a pandemic. A 2019 ranking of countries’ disaster preparedness from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and Nuclear Threat Initiative had the US at the top of the list, but still warned that “no country is fully prepared for epidemics or pandemics.”
A federal simulation prior to the Covid-19 pandemic also predicted problems the US eventually faced, from a collapse in coordination and communication to shortages in personal protective equipment for health care workers.”
“South Korea, which has been widely praised for its response to coronavirus, tested more than 66,000 people within a week of the first community transmission within its borders. By comparison, the US took roughly three weeks to complete that many tests — in a country with more than six times the population.
Asked about testing problems in March, Trump responded, “I don’t take responsibility at all.” In June, Trump claimed that “testing is a double-edged sword,” adding that “when you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people — you’re going to find more cases. So I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please.’”
The testing shortfall was a problem few thought possible in the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth. “We all kind of knew if a biological event hit during this administration, it wasn’t going to be good,” Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist, told me. “But I don’t think anyone ever anticipated it could be this bad.””
“The most aggressive steps Trump took to halt the virus — travel restrictions on China and Europe imposed in February and March, respectively — were likely too limited and too late. And to the extent these measures bought time, it wasn’t properly used.
The federal government is the only entity that can solve many of the problems the country is facing. If testing supply shortfalls in Maine are slowing down testing in Arizona or Florida, the federal government has the resources and the legal jurisdiction to quickly act. Local or state offices looking for advice on how to react to a national crisis will typically turn to the federal government for guidance.
But the inaction, contradictions, and counterproductive messaging created a vacuum in federal leadership.”
“After the initial wave of coronavirus cases began to subside in April, the White House stopped its daily press briefings on the topic. By June, Trump’s tweets and public appearances focused on Black Lives Matter protests and the 2020 election — part of what Politico reporter Dan Diamond described, based on discussions with administration officials, as an “apparent eagerness to change the subject.”
Then another wave of coronavirus infections hit beginning in June, peaking with more than 70,000 daily new cases, a new high, and more than 1,000 daily deaths.
America’s response to the initial rise of infections was slow and inadequate. But other developed countries also struggled with the sudden arrival of a disease brand new to humans. The second surge, experts said, was when the scope of Trump’s failure became more apparent.
By pushing states to open prematurely, failing to set up national infrastructure for testing and tracing, and downplaying masks, Trump put many states under enormous pressure to reopen before the virus was under control nationwide. Many quickly did — and over time suffered the consequences.”
“One explanation for the shortfalls in the US response is Trump’s obsession with getting America, particularly the economy, back to normal in the short term, seemingly before Election Day this November. It’s why he’s called on governors to “LIBERATE” states. It’s why he’s repeatedly said that “the Cure can’t be worse than the problem itself.” It’s one reason, perhaps, he resisted embracing even very minor lifestyle changes such as wearing a mask.
The reality is that life will only get closer to normal once the virus is suppressed. That’s what’s working for other countries that are more earnestly reopening, from Taiwan to Germany. It’s what a preliminary study on the 1918 flu found, as US cities that emerged economically stronger back then took more aggressive action that hindered economies in the short term but better kept infections and deaths down overall.
“Dead people don’t shop,” Jade Pagkas-Bather, an infectious diseases expert and doctor at the University of Chicago, told me. “They can’t stimulate economies.””