As the coronavirus crisis continues to unfold in the U.S., the overriding theme that has emerged is the federal government was woefully unprepared for this. And that lack of preparation — along with crucial weeks of indecision at the very top — is going to wind up causing thousands and thousands of preventable deaths.
There will eventually be a need for a comprehensive, bipartisan review of what went wrong with the government’s preparation for (or lack thereof) and inadequate response to this pandemic and why it went wrong. The American people deserve answers to those questions.
Over the last couple of weeks, there has been a push from members of both parties in Congress to form a bipartisan 9/11-commission style panel to have a full accounting of what happened and what steps can be taken in the future to prevent the loss of so many lives, and that is encouraging.
But with the lingering uncertainty of when we will be able to get a grip on the pandemic, the question of when that review could feasibly take place remains up in the air. And in today’s political climate, which is historically polarized and rife with alternate realities and the denial of basic facts, will such a review even be possible?
Either way it must happen, or we will be more exposed to a repeat of what is happening now.
All of the shortcomings that have become apparent and been documented through public reporting to this point are too much and run too deep to fully recount in this space. But what’s becoming clearer by the day is this was an avalanche that was years in the making.
ABC News reported earlier this month that then-President George W. Bush, after reading a book about the 1918 “Spanish Flu,” became fixated in 2005 on America’s lack of preparation for a pandemic and saw the need for a national strategy to gear up for and combat such an event. Thus, the Bush administration developed a “playbook that included diagrams for a global early-warning system, funding to develop new, rapid vaccine technology, and a robust national stockpile of critical supplies, such as face masks and ventilators,” ABC reported. The administration spent the next three years undergoing planning exercises and Congress appropriated $7 billion for the effort.
The plan was largely shelved due to other more pressing crises — the Hurricane Katrina fiasco, the situation in Iraq growing worse and the Great Recession among them — but parts of it have been utilized in preparation exercises that followed. And Bush turned out to be almost prophetic in a speech in November 2005 at the National Institutes in Health, which ABC revisited.
Here’s the 43rd president:
"A pandemic is a lot like a forest fire. If caught early, it might be extinguished with limited damage. If allowed to smolder, undetected, it can grow to an inferno that can spread quickly beyond our ability to control it.
"To respond to a pandemic, we need medical personnel and adequate supplies of equipment. In a pandemic, everything from syringes to hospital beds, respirators, masks and protective equipment would be in short supply.
"If we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare. And one day many lives could be needlessly lost because we failed to act today."
Fast-forward to the Trump administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has been uneven at best, filled with mixed messages. The president’s daily White House briefings have been a political disaster for him and a national embarrassment for the rest of us. He has used them to cast blame on everyone but himself, directly contradict the dedicated health professionals around him, attack reporters for asking fair and necessary questions, and drone on about his viewership ratings.
All of this is taking place as more and more people get sick and die, hospitals in different parts of the country are overrun and doctors and nurses still can’t get all the equipment they need to do their jobs as safely as possible. Despite the president’s statements that we have the most robust testing system, the reality is we’re not even close to having an adequate testing supply.
These shortcomings may have been set in motion years ago. They are further informed by a 2017 meeting between Obama administration and incoming Trump administration officials in which the incoming administration was walked through a scenario of a global pandemic and response measures that would need to take place. POLITICO, which reported on the meeting last month, reviewed documents from it and was told by more than a dozen attendees that incoming Trump administration officials in the room seemed mostly uninterested. More than two-thirds of them are no longer even with the administration. When you have as much turnover as this administration has, that hampers one’s ability to function smoothly. And it is showing.
The shortcomings are even more informed by the apparent reality that this crisis was ignored at the very top until it was too late. ABC reported last week that U.S. intelligence analysts were warning back in November that the virus, which was spreading through China’s Wuhan region at the time, could be a “cataclysmic event” around the globe. Other outlets have reported on a pair of memos from Trump’s economic advisor Peter Navarro on the public health dangers and severe economic troubles the virus could pose (which the president has falsely denied knowing about), even as Trump continued in late February to rail against the pandemic as hoax cooked up by his opponents. He later said a few people in the U.S. would get it, and then it would magically disappear. And then he said this would all be over by April.
Trump and his closest allies have been pushing and pushing for the country to “reopen” soon, by May even. We all of course would love to return to some semblance of “normal” sooner rather than later. But how many lives are we willing to endanger in the process? New models from the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, reported on by The New York Times, suggest another spike in deaths in the summer if governments start lifting restrictions and easing up too soon on the mitigation efforts that are apparently showing some signs of working and, so far, curtailing the initial death estimates.
This virus, this disease, is not beholden to a calendar, and health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci — director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — have warned that even if cases do dip in the summer, it may very well come back in the fall. Fauci has sounded confidence the U.S. will be better prepared for another wave. But that effort had better start now, with this administration making it the highest priority.
We as a country must affirm our full commitment to public health and give our brave and valiant medical workers everything they need to save lives and protect their own.
And as the scenario presentation made to the incoming Trump administration officials in 2017 noted, there must be a coordinated, unified national response with strong collaboration between federal and state officials.
And science, above politics and intuition, must drive the decision-making.