There are legitimate fears of a coronavirus pandemic — don’t panic, it’s an emerging threat, not a full blown emergency — and that’s when it’s a good idea to prepare. We should have a strong medical infrastructure, plans in place, people organizing now, just in case. In the US, however, our plan to respond to potential medical threats is a shambles.
For the United States, the answers are especially worrying because the government has intentionally rendered itself incapable. In 2018, the Trump administration fired the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command, including the White House management infrastructure. In numerous phone calls and emails with key agencies across the U.S. government, the only consistent response I encountered was distressed confusion. If the United States still has a clear chain of command for pandemic response, the White House urgently needs to clarify what it is—not just for the public but for the government itself, which largely finds itself in the dark.
Who is to blame for the chaos? It seems Obama had a thorough, if flawed, response team in place. One man and one party have been actively working to dismantle the entire system.
In the spring of 2018, the White House pushed Congress to cut funding for Obama-era disease security programs, proposing to eliminate $252 million in previously committed resources for rebuilding health systems in Ebola-ravaged Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. Under fire from both sides of the aisle, President Donald Trump dropped the proposal to eliminate Ebola funds a month later. But other White House efforts included reducing $15 billion in national health spending and cutting the global disease-fighting operational budgets of the CDC, NSC, DHS, and HHS. And the government’s $30 million Complex Crises Fund was eliminated.
In May 2018, Trump ordered the NSC’s entire global health security unit shut down, calling for reassignment of Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer and dissolution of his team inside the agency. The month before, then-White House National Security Advisor John Bolton pressured Ziemer’s DHS counterpart, Tom Bossert, to resign along with his team. Neither the NSC nor DHS epidemic teams have been replaced. The global health section of the CDC was so drastically cut in 2018 that much of its staff was laid off and the number of countries it was working in was reduced from 49 to merely 10. Meanwhile, throughout 2018, the U.S. Agency for International Development and its director, Mark Green, came repeatedly under fire from both the White House and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And though Congress has so far managed to block Trump administration plans to cut the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps by 40 percent, the disease-fighting cadres have steadily eroded as retiring officers go unreplaced.
But here’s what worries me most: the systemic incentive to continue to wreck what system we have. There is no price the Republicans will have to pay. People will die, the country could be thoroughly disrupted, and the demagogues will just blame it all on the Democrats, or the Chinese, or Islamic terrorists, or filthy disease-ridden immigrants, and people will want to believe them, and everything will just get worse. In fact, catastrophe will strengthen their grip on the country.
Heckuva job, Trumpy.