It is clear that what got Donald Trump’s attention about the coronavirus was that it caused a slump in the stock market, the only piece of data he seems to pay attention to and cares about. He is reportedly thinking of tax cuts as a response. His initial response was that it was a hoax, no doubt thinking that that comment would reassure and rally the stock market. Of course, the fact that he is anti-science and that vice president Mike Pence, the person he has appointed to oversee the government response, is also an anti-science religious nut who thinks prayer is a good way to treat epidemics, is not reassuring. Trump has also said, without any evidence, that things are under control, that a vaccine will be ready soon, that the virus is less dangerous than the flu and that the virus will disappear as if by magic come April with the arrival of warm weather.
Science journalist Laurie Garrett writes that Americans have so far been epidemic voyeurs, watching other countries deal with them. They are now confronted with the need to deal with it on their own soil and they are unprepared. Worse, she says that Trump has sabotaged America’s epidemic response machinery by dismantling the sophisticated response system that president Obama put in place following the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. Now if the pandemic hits here, the US is unlikely to be able to match the way the Chinese government has responded.
When Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), declared the Wuhan coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern on Thursday, he praised China for taking “unprecedented” steps to control the deadly virus. “I have never seen for myself this kind of mobilization,” he noted. “China is actually setting a new standard for outbreak response.”
The epidemic control efforts unfolding today in China—including placing some 100 million citizens on lockdown, shutting down a national holiday, building enormous quarantine hospitals in days’ time, and ramping up 24-hour manufacturing of medical equipment—are indeed gargantuan. It’s impossible to watch them without wondering, “What would we do? How would my government respond if this virus spread across my country?”
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. [My emphasis-MS]
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.
The spread of the coronavirus to the US exposes the danger caused by a lying and incompetent president who thinks short-term and only sees the world through the lens of self-interest. At times like these, one expects authoritative information to come out of the highest levels of the administration. But what are people to do with an ignorant president who lies to serve his own interests?