Trump Has Sabotaged America’s Coronavirus Response
As it improvises its way through a public health crisis, the United States has never been less prepared for a pandemic.
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—not just for the public but for the government itself, which largely finds itself in the dark.
When Ebola broke out in West Africa in 2014, President Barack Obama recognized that responding to the outbreak overseas, while also protecting Americans at home, involved multiple U.S. government departments and agencies, none of which were speaking to one another. Basically, the U.S. pandemic infrastructure was an enormous orchestra full of talented, egotistical players, each jockeying for solos and fame, refusing to rehearse, and demanding higher salaries—all without a conductor. To bring order and harmony to the chaos, rein in the agency egos, and create a coherent multiagency response overseas and on the homefront, Obama anointed a former vice presidential staffer, Ronald Klain, as a sort of “epidemic czar” inside the White House, clearly stipulated the roles and budgets of various agencies, and placed incident commanders in charge in each Ebola-hit country and inside the United States. The orchestra may have still had its off-key instruments, but it played the same tune.
Building on the Ebola experience, the Obama administration set up a permanent epidemic monitoring and command group inside the White House National Security Council (NSC) and another in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—both of which followed the scientific and public health leads of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the diplomatic advice of the State Department.
On the domestic front, the real business of assuring public health and safety is a local matter, executed by state, county, and city departments that operate under a mosaic of laws and regulations that vary jurisdiction by jurisdiction. Some massive cities, such as New York City or Boston, have large budgets, clear regulations, and epidemic experiences that have left deep benches of medical and public health talent. But much of the United States is less fortunate on the local level, struggling with underfunded agencies, understaffing, and no genuine epidemic experience. Large and small, America’s localities rely in times of public health crisis on the federal government.
Bureaucracy matters. Without it, there’s nothing to coherently manage an alphabet soup of agencies housed in departments ranging from Defense to Commerce, Homeland Security to Health and Human Services (HHS).
But that’s all gone now.
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.
Public health advocates have been ringing alarm bells to no avail. Klain has been warning for two years that the United States was in grave danger should a pandemic emerge. In 2017 and 2018, the philanthropist billionaire Bill Gates met repeatedly with Bolton and his predecessor, H.R. McMaster, warning that ongoing cuts to the global health disease infrastructure would render the United States vulnerable to, as he put it, the “significant probability of a large and lethal modern-day pandemic occurring in our lifetimes.” And an independent, bipartisan panel formed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies concluded that lack of preparedness was so acute in the Trump administration that the “United States must either pay now and gain protection and security or wait for the next epidemic and pay a much greater price in human and economic costs.”
The next epidemic is now here; we’ll soon know the costs imposed by the Trump administration’s early negligence and present panic. On Jan. 29, Trump announced the creation of the President’s Coronavirus Task Force, an all-male group of a dozen advisors, five from the White House staff. Chaired by Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, the task force includes men from the CDC, State Department, DHS, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Transportation Department. It’s not clear how this task force will function or when it will even convene.
In the absence of a formal structure, the government has resorted to improvisation. In practical terms, the U.S. government’s public health effort is led by Daniel Jernigan, the incident commander for the Wuhan coronavirus response at the CDC. Jernigan is responsible for convening meetings of the nation’s state health commissioners and briefing CDC Director Robert Redfield and his boss, Azar. Meanwhile, state-level health leaders told me that they have been sharing information with one another and deciding how best to prepare their medical and public health workers without waiting for instructions from federal leadership. The most important federal program for local medical worker and hospital epidemic training, however, will run out of money in May, as Congress has failed to vote on its funding. The HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) is the bulwark between hospitals and health departments versus pandemic threats; last year HHS requested $2.58 billion, but Congress did not act.
On Thursday, the CDC confirmed the first human-to-human spread of the Wuhan coronavirus inside the United States, between a husband and wife in Chicago. While the wife acquired her infection traveling in China, she passed the virus to her husband on return to the United States. Though only six Wuhan coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the United States, with no deaths, Nancy Messonnier of the CDC told reporters on Thursday: “Moving forward, we can expect to see more cases, and more cases mean the potential for more person-to-person spread.”
As the number of coronavirus cases increases, Americans are growing more fearful, which is creating new problems that the government is leaving unaddressed. Surveying the largest drug store chains in New York City on Wednesday, I found that all were sold out of medical face masks and latex gloves, as is Amazon. Searching online for protective masks reveals that dozens of products intended for use to block dust and particles far larger than viruses are garnering brisk sales—and none available that can actually prevent viral exposure. The surge in mask and glove sales to worried citizens all over the world needs refereeing. Bona fide anti-viral masks should be prioritized to front-line medical and public health staff, and the populace shouldn’t be misled into purchasing and wearing products that offer no genuine protection.
Countering misinformation, conspiracy theories, rumormongering, and discriminatory behavior against people believed to be disease spreaders requires thoughtful communication from leadership at the highest levels of government. None is in evidence. Instead, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appeared on Fox Business on Thursday to fan the flames of fear for the sake of hypothetical business opportunities. “It does give businesses yet another thing to consider when they go through their review of their supply chain,” Ross said. “It’s another risk factor that people need to take into account. So, I think it will help accelerate the return of jobs to North America, some to the U.S., probably some to Mexico as well.” Meanwhile, Trump, asked at the recent World Economic Forum gathering in Davos, Switzerland how he intended to respond to the epidemic, said the situation was under control and a world away from the United States.
In a statement released this week, Pompeo sought to calm Americans, saying, “People should know that there are enormous efforts underway by the United States government to make sure that we do everything we can to protect the American people and to reduce the risk all around the globe.” But late Thursday night, the secretary—in clear defiance of WHO’s admonishment against restricting travel to and from China—issued an advisory saying, “Those currently in China should consider departing.”
In recent days, a handful of policy leaders have been shifted from government positions focused on weapons of mass destruction and bioterrorism to the slowly emerging epidemic response infrastructure, such as Matthew Pottinger, Philip Ferro, and David Wade on the NSC and the bioterrorism expert Anthony Ruggiero. It’s not at all clear how they would handle an explosion of coronavirus cases, were such a dreadful thing to occur in the United States. “The full weight of the US Government is working on this,” a senior administration official told CNN on Tuesday. “As with any interagency effort of this scale, the National Security Council works closely with the whole of government to ensure a coordinated and unified effort.”
The last time the U.S. government and its many local and state counterparts faced an explosive pandemic on American soil was 2009, with the spread of H1N1, or swine flu. The then-new Obama administration was still filling key positions across the executive branch when the epidemic emerged that spring, and it struggled to set the proper tone in reaction to what turned out to be an exceptionally contagious, but not unusually virulent, form of influenza. The challenge revealed enormous gaps in America’s ability to swiftly manufacture vaccines, stock-outs of face masks and vital hospital supplies, and serious difficulty in keeping ahead of outright lies, conspiracy theories, and rumormongering on cable TV and social media. The much more deadly pandemic test came in 1981, with the arrival of HIV: It did not go well, as history has well established, because homophobia was so pervasive in the country and within government that gay men, rather than the virus killing them, were treated as a national scourge.
Since the great influenza pandemic of 1918, the United States has been spared terrifying epidemics. Americans now are epidemic voyeurs. 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?” The answers are not reassuring.
Laurie Garrett is a former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Pulitzer Prize winning science writer, and columnist for Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Laurie_Garrett