On Thursday morning, Donald Trump took aim at Joe Biden with a fresh series of tweets that blamed Barack Obama and Biden for “complicating” the CDC and for an H1N1 flu response that was a “disaster.” Trump then had the absolute audacity to claim that since taking the White House he had cut “all the red tape,” making the CDC and other agencies better able to meet a pandemic threat.
The idea that Barack Obama is somehow to blame for what everyone agrees is a completely bungled response to the novel coronavirus is handy, especially for a White House where assigning blame is often the top priority in any situation, and even more so when Joe Biden looks set to win the Democratic nomination. But it’s also completely ridiculous. And the idea that Trump has done anything that improved the situation is more ridiculous still.
Trump begins by claiming that his “closing the borders” slowed the progress of coronavirus in the United States. It’s a fiction that Trump has used over and over, in an effort to draw a connection between his xenophobic anti-immigration policies and the pandemic. It’s the same reason that Trump described the novel coronavirus as “a foreign virus” in his address to the nation, before putting in his utterly arbitrary ban on some Europeans from some nations flying to the U.S. It’s also the reason many Republicans have begun referring to COVID-19 as “Wuhan flu.”
Of course, Trump didn’t close any borders “early.” In fact, he still hasn’t closed any borders. He restricted some flights directly from China—which, shocker, doesn’t have a border with the United States—and that was it.
But it would have been difficult to do anything about the 2009 H1N1 flu epidemic by closing borders because, as the CDC explains, that novel flu virus emerged within the United States. Closing borders might have saved others from the U.S., but it certainly couldn’t have made a difference at home. Trump also calls the Obama response plan “a disaster,” claims that Obama took six months to declare an emergency, and says that Biden had to apologize for the response. None of this is true. Of course, since Trump’s source for the information was Fox News’ Lou Dobbs, that’s not surprising.
In fact, the Obama administration declared a national health emergency immediately when the disease broke out just a few weeks after Obama took office. That declaration came within two weeks of the first detected case of the virus, as the U.S. launched a crash program to develop tests and a vaccine and to formulate a response. Those very first cases were found to already be circulating in the population, because the flu—and it was a flu—had not been identified as unique until that point. The very first cases were detected in children, in California, and the first two cases were 130 miles apart with no apparent connections, indicating that there was wide community spread before the disease was first detected. Days later, cases in Texas showed that the virus had likely spread over large areas of the country before it was first detected.
That first month put scientists in the United States exactly where Chinese scientists were last December—minus the efforts to suppress information. They had to identify the virus, isolate it, and determine what features made it different from other types of flu. The CDC’s Emergency Operations Center went to work one week after the detection of the first case. That same day, the CDC both issued the first test kits and began work on a vaccine. A week after that, the gene of the virus had been completely sequenced. All of this happened faster than with the novel coronavirus, even though the technology at the time was considerably slower when it came to genetic sequencing.
It’s not a matter of whether the H1N1 flu in 2009 killed 12,000 Americans … it did. It’s a matter that it killed only 12,000 Americans when initial predictions had been much more dire. That was because a vaccine was genuinely rushed into production: That emergency that Obama declared six months later was to allow for the isolation of patients and to push the vaccine out when the virus returned in the fall.
Following this event, Obama and Biden conducted a review of the response—which was widely regarded as a model and used around the world—and identified points at which the planning and response could have been improved. That caused them to create a pandemic response team—a team that Donald Trump tore apart even as he was replacing the CDC chief with a loyal sycophant.