During a cringe-inducing press conference on Wednesday, accurately described by a former World Health Organization official as “incoherent,” Trump struggled to correctly count the number of American citizens confirmed to be infected with the virus, just before he summarily punted the entire issue to Vice President Mike Pence. The financial markets that Trump pays such close attention to were not reassured, promptly tanking at the sound of Thursday’s opening bell.
Meanwhile, in the reality-based world, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, stated that “it’s not so much a question of if this will happen in this country anymore, but of when this will happen.” Echoing the CDC’s grim assessment, Messonnier further warned that the public should “prepare for the expectation that this might be bad.”
At this point, faced with such a seemingly contradictory barrage of information, it is probably a good time for Americans to know exactly how ill-prepared the United States finds itself to meet a challenge as daunting as this potential pandemic, all due to the actions of the Trump administration. That lack of preparedness may also explain why the administration has relentlessly downplayed the seriousness of the outbreak: As pointed out in this cogent piece by Frank DiPrima, whatever happens as a result of this nascent pandemic, the Trump administration is going to own it—good, bad, or horrific.
In late January, Laurie Garrett, writing for Foreign Policy (not exactly a left-wing publication) authored a disturbing article, titled “Trump Has Sabotaged America’s Coronavirus Response.” At that time, the virus’s spread was limited to certain parts of China and thus must have seemed rather “exotic” to someone with as limited a comprehension of global geography as Donald Trump. But the article makes the strong case that, thanks entirely to Trump’s own malfeasance in deliberately neutering the response mechanisms put in place by President Obama, our country has never been in a worse position to handle a global pandemic. Garrett’s article vividly illustrates just how serious and consequential Trump’s arbitrary cuts within the federal government—in the guise of “streamlining” functions and cutting so-called “wasteful” budgets—really can be when actual American lives are on the line.
Garrett first notes that the U.S. government under this administration has done what few governments do: It has purposely, deliberately, and intentionally “rendered itself incapable” of responding to this potential pandemic. She describes the sorry status of the U.S.’s infectious disease response capability, as of just last month.
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.
The heedless and thoughtless demolition of federal agencies and the elimination of key personnel within them is a feature, not a bug, of the entire Trump administration. It is the brainchild of former White House strategic advisor Steve Bannon, whose core philosophy of “deconstructing” government has been the driving factor behind all of Trump’s cabinet appointments, even after Bannon himself long departed the administration for more lucrative pastures. Following this “philosophy,” which has its roots in virulent, right-leaning “libertarianism,” incompetent people are deliberately placed in positions of responsibility to ensure that the functions of government “devolve,” while as many jobs as possible within government itself are eliminated. As right-wing scion Grover Norquist famously put it, the goal is to whittle government functions down so as to to let government itself “drown in the bathtub.”
Well, this is what “drowning” our country’s efforts to contain pandemics in the “bathtub” looks like.
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.
Not content with eliminating efforts to prevent further global pandemics, the Trump administration also targeted the federal network the Obama administration had constructed to contain such epidemics if they reached U.S. shores. Here we saw two of the Trump administration’s overarching goals being realized—the vigorous, wholesale dismantling of government positions as well as undoing of the work of the Obama administration, which had carefully designed and staffed what it expected to be a permanent, crisis-ready infrastructure designed to monitor and command the response to viral epidemics such as COVID-19 coronavirus.
These so-called “bureaucracies” included subgroups assigned within the National Security Counsel and Department of Homeland Security, both of which were tasked with coordination with the CDC and the National Institutes of Health (with assistance from the State Department as well) to help respond to serous disease threats to the U.S. population. As Garrett points out, the Obama administration was aware that while local efforts form the spearhead of pandemic containment, state and local governments are often unequipped financially or with enough experience to do so. In addition to taking on the immense task of managing all of the groups within various agencies implicated in responding to a national pandemic, this more centralized coordination effort was intended in part to supplement and direct local response, since in times of crisis local governments classically look to the federal government for guidance.
Trump’s people stepped in and tore down the entire program.
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.
Former Obama administration officials tasked with the containment of potential viral pandemics such as COVID-19 have been loudly warning the Trump administration that these thoughtless cuts were risking a catastrophe in terms of real American lives. Their shouts fell on deaf ears. A bipartisan panel warned that if the Trump administration did not replace these people, the price could be terrible both in “human and economic” costs. That panel was ignored. Even Bill Gates got into the act, warning administration officials that its ongoing cuts risked leaving the U.S. open to a lethal, “modern-day” pandemic. Even though Gates is a billionaire, he was ignored by Trump as well.
So here we are, faced with an imminent pandemic potentially capable of killing thousands of American citizens, at the very least. Trump formed a task force on Jan. 29, chaired by Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical industry lobbyist turned director of the Department of Health and Human Services; he possesses no formal medical training whatsoever. That “task force" finally reared its head, however briefly, on Twitter this week, asking the public for help because one member couldn’t access a map depicting the coronavirus epidemic.
This is the situation the Trump administration has created with its malfeasance, incompetence, and deliberate sabotage. As Garrett points out in her article, Americans only know epidemics and pandemics as “voyeurs.” It’s been over a century since something as potentially serious as the COVID-19 coronavirus swept through this nation, and Americans’ experience of that virus so far has been limited to watching it all happen on TV or the internet.
They watch YouTube videos of China’s struggles. They see the government attack its epidemic by building a 1,000-bed quarantine hospital in a single week, lock down cities larger than New York or Los Angeles, ramp up 24/7 manufacture of face masks and protective gear, deploy its armed forces medical corps to treat ailing citizens, send enormous convoys of food and supplies to anxious citizens of Wuhan, and release terrifying, growing tallies daily of its swelling patient populations. They look in horror at panicked lines of masked people waiting to learn if their fevers are caused by the deadly disease, at bodies lying on cold floors in overcrowded hospitals, and at people crying out from behind their masks for help. And they ask, “What would the United States do? What would the White House do?”
Thanks to Trump’s sabotage, whatever the U.S. government does in response to this crisis will be far, far less than what was possible just a few years ago. Unfortunately it seems we're all about to find out just exactly what that means. Fortunately there are local and state organizations and individuals who take a more realistic, hands-on approach to preparing for such an outbreak. Preparing for a virus is, as noted by CBS medical contributor Dr. David Agus, much like preparing for a severe storm or weather event.
For example, he recommends people gather supplies that would allow them to live indoors for several days if necessary — such as non-perishable food, extra water, a two-week supply of all medications, and activities to keep children occupied.
[H]ealth officials recommend people take basic hygienic measures to protect themselves against infection — avoiding close contact with people who are sick, washing your hands throughly and avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. The CDC also recommends covering your cough or sneeze with a tissue and disinfecting objects and surfaces that are frequently touched.
A good rule of thumb regarding food and medicine storage is to plan as if you would not be able to go to a food or drug store for two weeks. Additionally, parents of school-aged children may want to begin thinking about how they will manage child care in the event of school closures or sudden dismissals, and in particular, whether they would be able to work from home if such care is unavailable. And please, don’t wear a face mask unless you are, in fact, sick.
The Department of Homeland Security also has a website providing basic preparation information, as do the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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