Amidst All of Trump’s Failures, There Is One That Stands Out

There was a crucial moment when the coronavirus could have been contained. It was squandered.

An ad from the organization Unite the Country correctly stated that “crisis comes to every president. This one failed.” It will probably takes something like a 9/11 commission to document all of the Trump administration’s failures during this coronavirus crisis, but there is one that stands out above all the others.

Ed Pilkington and Tom McCarthy have suggested that, “When the definitive history of the coronavirus pandemic is written, the date 20 January 2020 is certain to feature prominently.” That is the day that the first case of coronavirus was reported in the United States. But it is also the day the first case was reported in South Korea. Here is how that country responded.

Within a week of its first confirmed case, South Korea’s disease control agency had summoned 20 private companies to the medical equivalent of a war-planning summit and told them to develop a test for the virus at lightning speed. A week after that, the first diagnostic test was approved and went into battle, identifying infected individuals who could then be quarantined to halt the advance of the disease.

Some 357,896 tests later, the country has more or less won the coronavirus war.

This is what it looks like to “more or less” win the coronavirus war.

The article by Pilkington and McCarthy is titled, “The missing six weeks: how Trump failed the biggest test of his life.” This video tracks what Trump was saying during those crucial six weeks after January 20th.

But more than what the president was saying, it was what his administration wasn’t doing that led to such a catastrophe. Unlike South Korea, here is how reporters at the New York Times described what happened.

[A]s the deadly virus from China spread with ferocity across the United States between late January and early March, large-scale testing of people who might have been infected did not happen — because of technical flaws, regulatory hurdles, business-as-usual bureaucracies and lack of leadership at multiple levels, according to interviews with more than 50 current and former public health officials, administration officials, senior scientists and company executives.

The result was a lost month, when the world’s richest country — armed with some of the most highly trained scientists and infectious disease specialists — squandered its best chance of containing the virus’s spread. Instead, Americans were left largely blind to the scale of a looming public health catastrophe.

Rather than mobilize the private sector or utilize tests distributed by the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control insisted on developing their own, a process that was bungled and failed to produce tests until early March. The reason that was so crucial is that it squandered the time when it might have been possible to contain the virus.

Had the United States been able to track its earliest movements and identify hidden hot spots, local quarantines might have confined the disease…

By early March, after federal officials finally announced changes to expand testing, it was too late. With the early lapses, containment was no longer an option. The tool kit of epidemiology would shift — lockdowns, social disruption, intensive medical treatment — in hopes of mitigating the harm.

As we have seen so often with the Trump administration, this disaster was the result of both incompetence and malevolence. On the former, here is how Pilkington and McCarthy describe what was happening at the CDC.

Disbanding the [pandemic unit in the national security council] exacerbated a trend that was already prevalent after two years of Trump – an exodus of skilled and experienced officials who knew what they were doing. “There’s been an erosion of expertise, of competent leadership, at important levels of government,” a former senior government official told the Guardian.

“Over time there was a lot of paranoia and people left and they had a hard time attracting good replacements,” the official said. “Nobody wanted to work there.”

It was hardly a morale-boosting gesture when Trump proposed a 16% cut in CDC funding on 10 February – 11 days after the World Health Organization had declared a public health emergency over Covid-19.

When it comes to malevolence, Dan Diamond described what was happening with Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, who oversees the CDC.

Secretary Azar has not always given the president the worst-case scenario of what could happen. My understanding is he did not push to do aggressive additional testing in recent weeks, and that’s partly because more testing might have led to more cases being discovered of coronavirus outbreak, and the president had made clear — the lower the numbers on coronavirus, the better for the president, the better for his potential reelection this fall.

Based on Trump’s public remarks during that crucial six-week period, he was probably describing his own mindset when he said this during the press briefing on Sunday.

“We had a lot of people who were saying, ‘maybe we shouldn’t do anything, just ride it.’ They say, ‘ride it like a cowboy, just ride it, ride that sucker right through,’” he said. “I thought about it; I said, ‘maybe we should ride it through.’

As the video above documents, the president was saying things like “the 15, in a couple of days, it’s going to be down to zero,” and “it’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.” During a time when adequate testing could have contained the spread of the virus, Trump was “riding it like a cowboy,” pretending that it would all just disappear.

Now the president thinks he deserves accolades if 100,000-200,000 Americans die, along with untold suffering and an economy at a standstill.

The president is preparing the stage to give himself accolades if the number of deaths related to this pandemic is less than the 2 million who would have died if we had all done nothing to mitigate the harm. As Rick Wilson wrote, “Only in the world of Trumpian dumbfuckery could anyone brighter than a toaster oven think 100,000 avoidable deaths is a win.”

There was a crucial moment when action by a competent administration could have contained the coronavirus via testing and protocols that are normally used to halt the spread of a potential pandemic. But Trump squandered that moment and we’re all paying the price. Of all his failures, that one is the most consequential.

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Nancy LeTourneau

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