With Pandemics, Trump’s Isolationism Is a Recipe for Disaster

‘There is no wall we can build that is high enough to keep viruses out of the U.S.’

A lot of the focus on how Trump has mishandled his administration’s response to the coronavirus has focused on what he has and hasn’t done to contain its spread domestically. But back in 2018, Ron Klain—who was President Obama’s Ebola czar—suggested that the biggest gap is global.

Klain added that Trump’s isolationist mindset has led to the United States pulling back from its leadership role in global health crises, which, he said, “is … going to be a serious threat to our security.” Klain called Trump’s policies and views “xenophobic, if not racist,” leading to the blaming of immigrants and foreigners for problems that need public-health interventions…

But the biggest gap, he said, is the global gap: “We can’t be safe here in America when there’s a risk of pandemics around the world,” Klain said. “The world’s just too small. Diseases spread too quickly … There is no wall we can build that is high enough to keep viruses and the disease threat out of the United States. We have to engage in the world.”

Engagement in the world is exactly what the Obama administration did in response to the Ebola crisis. During a press briefing in October 2014, Obama said that “We have to work together at every level — federal, state and local. And we have to keep leading the global response, because the best way to stop this disease, the best way to keep Americans safe, is to stop it at its source — in West Africa.” U.S. personnel were deployed to fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, working collaboratively to bring the number of cases down by 80 percent from peak levels before returning home.

As a follow-up, the Obama administration set up epidemic prevention programs in 49 countries.

The CDC programs, part of a global health security initiative, train front-line workers in outbreak detection and work to strengthen laboratory and emergency response systems in countries where disease risks are greatest. The goal is to stop future outbreaks at their source.

All of that is what led Tom Friedman to write that Obama’s response to the Ebola crisis may be “his most significant foreign policy achievement, for which he got little credit precisely because it worked.”

Meanwhile, the man who would become his successor did a lot of tweeting.

Trump kept tweeting. In all, the self-admitted germaphobe tweeted about Ebola nearly a hundred times over the next three months. He was among the first to call for a travel ban between the three West African countries and the United States, a call later adopted by Republicans running in the fall midterms. He advocated against sending thousands of American troops, a decision public health officials in Liberia later said helped stem the tide of the outbreak.

And when a Liberian man fell ill days after arriving in Dallas to meet the son he had not seen in a decade, Trump warned: “IT WILL ONLY GET WORSE!” He later falsely accused the man, Thomas Eric Duncan, of having signed false papers. He advocated that Duncan be prosecuted, just days before Duncan died.

Four years later, due to lack of funding from congressional Republicans and Trump, 39 of the 49 programs established to prevent epidemics were shut down, including the ones in China, Pakistan, Haiti, Rwanda, and Congo.

President Obama’s commitment to a global response was part of his awareness about how things work in the 21st century. Here’s what he said about that during a speech in Cairo in 2009.

Of course, recognizing our common humanity is only the beginning of our task.  Words alone cannot meet the needs of our people.  These needs will be met only if we act boldly in the years ahead; and if we understand that the challenges we face are shared, and our failure to meet them will hurt us all.

For we have learned from recent experience that when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere.  When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk.  When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations.  When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean.  When innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience.  That is what it means to share this world in the 21st century.  That is the responsibility we have to one another as human beings.

And this is a difficult responsibility to embrace.  For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes — and, yes, religions — subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests.  Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating.  Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.  So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it.  Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.

We now have a president who consistently touts “America first” and thinks that we can be protected from the spread of the coronavirus by simply building walls and closing our borders. His nationalism fuels the kind of isolationism that is common among populist movements on both the left and right. But given our global interdependence, it is nothing but a recipe for disaster.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.