How Trump let Covid-19 win

Donald Trump talks to journalists during a news conference about his administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic on July 22, 2020, in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Trump’s magical thinking couldn’t beat the coronavirus. America is stuck with the consequences.

As America, and even his own administration, woke up to the threat of Covid-19, President Donald Trump still didn’t seem to get it. Within weeks of suggesting that people social distance in mid-March, the president went on national TV to argue that the US could reopen by Easter Sunday in April. “You’ll have packed churches all over our country,” Trump said in March. “I think it’ll be a beautiful time.”

The US wasn’t able to fully and safely reopen in April. It isn’t able to fully and safely reopen in August.

The virus rages on, affecting every aspect of American life, from the economy to education to entertainment. Nearly 180,000 Americans are dead. Schools are closing down again after botched attempts to reopen, with outbreaks in universities and K-12 settings. America now has one of the worst ongoing epidemics in the world, with the most daily new cases and deaths, after controlling for population, among the developed countries.

As fall approaches, in-person teaching is back in parts of Europe, fans are returning to baseball stadiums in Taiwan and South Korea, and dine-in reservations have jumped to previous years’ levels in Germany — while many states in the US are scaling back their already limited reopenings as the disease spreads.

The Easter episode, experts said, exemplified the magical thinking that has animated Trump’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic before and after the novel coronavirus reached the US. It’s a problem that’s continued through August — with Trump and those under him recently denying the existence of a resurgence in Covid-19, falsely claiming rising cases were a result of more tests. With every day, week, and month that the Trump administration has tried to spin a positive story, it’s also resisted stronger action, allowing the epidemic to drag on.

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.

“There was a failure to realize what an efficiently spreading respiratory virus for which we have no vaccine and no antiviral meant,” Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me. “From the very beginning, that minimization … set a tone that reverberated from the highest levels of government to what the average person believes about the virus.”

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.

“If George W. Bush had been president, if John McCain had been president, if Mitt Romney had been president, this would have looked very different,” Ashish Jha, the faculty director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told me, emphasizing the failure to act after Covid-19 hit the US hard was a phenomenon exclusive to Trump.

Experts worry that things will again get worse: Colder weather is coming, forcing people back into risky indoor environments. So are holiday celebrations, when families and friends will gather from across the country. Another flu season looms. And Trump, experts lamented, is still not ready to do much, if anything, about it.

The White House disputes the criticisms. Spokesperson Sarah Matthews claimed Trump “has led an historic, whole-of-America coronavirus response” that followed experts’ advice, boosted testing rates, delivered equipment to health care workers, and remains focused on expediting a vaccine.

She added, “This strong leadership will continue.”

The US wasn’t prepared for a pandemic — and Trump made it worse

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.

Bill Gates, who’s dedicated much of his Microsoft fortune to fighting infectious diseases, warned in 2017, “The impact of a huge epidemic, like a flu epidemic, would be phenomenal because all the supply chains would break down. There’d be a lot of panic. Many of our systems would be overloaded.”

Gates told the Washington Post in 2018 he had raised his concerns in meetings with Trump. But the president, it’s now clear, didn’t listen.

There are limitations to better preparedness, too. “If you take what assets the United States had and you use them poorly the way we did, it doesn’t matter what the report says,” Adalja said, referring to the 2019 ranking. “If you don’t have the leadership to execute, then it makes no difference.”

As Covid-19 spread, Trump downplayed the threat

On February 25, Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters that Americans should prepare for community spread of the coronavirus, social distancing, and the possibility that “disruption to everyday life might be severe.”

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