Do you believe in miracles?
“Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” (Feb. 10)
“It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.” (Feb. 27) President Donald Trump on the coronavirus.
We are in a major public health crisis. The coronavirus, or COVID-19, started in China; the first confirmed case was on Nov. 17, 2019. When Chinese health authorities realized this was something new, they notified the World Health Organization on Dec. 31. (Newsweek, March 14)
On Jan. 8, South Korea announced the first case outside of China. The virus quickly spread to over 148 other countries. America had its first confirmed case on Jan. 20.
When the virus hit South Korea, its government took aggressive action, testing 10,000-20,000 people a day. As of Friday, they’ve had 139 deaths, with a declining death rate.
In the United States, there was delay and confusion. President Trump repeatedly denied there was a problem.
On Jan. 22, Trump claimed “we have it totally under control.” He repeated that claim throughout February, even calling the virus a “hoax.” As recently as March 10, he said, “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”
Without federal guidance, the lack of protocols at the nation’s airports allowed infected people to disburse quickly into the general population. The result? Our infection and death rates increased rapidly.
Why were we so unprepared? There are several reasons. After the 2014 Ebola crisis (total American deaths: two), President Barack Obama set up the National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense. This was an early warning system for new diseases, with staff in multiple countries.
In 2018, Trump dismantled this pandemic office. Some staff went to different agencies; others were fired. Staff was removed from several countries, including China. The dedicated agency that would alert us to potential pandemics was gone.
On March 6, Trump was asked if “he was prepared to ‘rethink having an Office of Pandemic Preparation in the White House.” The president replied: ‘You never really know when something like this is going to strike and what it’s going to be.’” (MSNBC, March 9)
On March 13, Trump denied knowing anything about dismantling the agency. Andy Slavitts, former Medicare and Medicaid administrator, tweeted on March 13, “The original sin is Trump’s months-long denial and his dismantling of public health and response infrastructure. That wasn’t all, but it led to other fatal mistakes. The public health infrastructure could have been prepared. What does that mean: nasal swabs, respirators, ventilators, RNA kits to read tests, machines, gloves…” (The Guardian, March 14)
Some say Trump couldn’t know a new pandemic would erupt. Like most Trumpian claims, this is a lie. When Trump took office, the outgoing Obama administration briefed him thoroughly, including detailed briefing books, on the possibilities of a world-wide pandemic. Trump’s staff threw the books in the trash.
Last year the U.S. government, along with 12 states, conducted a simulation called Crimson Contagion. The goal? To see what would happen if a new virus invaded America. The conclusion? The simulation warned of exactly the scenario we are seeing now.
“The simulation’s sobering results – contained in a draft report dated October 2019 that has not previously been reported – drove home just how underfunded, underprepared and uncoordinated the federal government would be for a life-or-death battle with a virus for which no treatment existed.” (New York Times, March 19)
Now our country is practically shut down. People are suffering. Health care workers can’t get the supplies they need. Hospitals are overwhelmed. One New York City health care worker said, “We have no proper PPE. We are being told to come to work even if you had a COVID exposure…This system is doomed for failure without immediate help from the military. We need PPE, vents, staffing, more hospital beds, more tests.” (NBC News, March 20)
Millions of test kits aren’t available. Former CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said, “The CDC got this right with H1N1 and Zika, and produced huge quantities of test kits that went around the country. I don’t know what went wrong this time.” (Common Health, March 9)
I believe in miracles. What I don’t believe is that this crisis will miraculously end as Trump predicted. Trump didn’t create the pandemic, but his incompetence and lack of preparation have made it far worse than it might have been. And hundreds of millions of Americans are paying the price.
Jeanette Strong, whose column appears every other week, is a Nevada Press Association award-winning columnist. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.