We weren’t ready for COVID-19, even though we could have been. Donald Trump eliminated the joint task force with China, established to get a quick jump on any potential pandemic, but we had other intelligence sources reporting on its first outbreak in Wuhan last November. We had epidemiologists and agencies trained to respond to the news and to deal urgently with the world’s latest viral threat, or so we thought.
The news got to the White House. It just didn’t get to the President, a man notoriously averse to bad news and preoccupied with his impeachment from office — a hoax perpetrated, as he told us, by his Democratic enemies in Congress. For Donald Trump, bad news is always a hoax, so how could a virus that threatened millions not be a really, really big one? And where would such a hoax come from but, once again, the Democrats?
That’s right. When Donald Trump was finally forced to shake hands with the news of COVID-19, two precious months already wasted, he called it another Democratic hoax.
No one could make this up, right? But then, no one could make up the biggest hoax of all, that Donald Trump is President of the United States. Except that, like the Coronavirus, it is all too true.
When Trump said there were only 15 cases of the virus in the United States — he referred to confirmed cases, of which there were then actually 22 — he said this was good news, and headed toward zero.
A month later, the “zero cases” were on their way past a million.
Was there no one to tell Trump that when you have one case of an epidemic you are going to have a million, and if you do nothing about it you will be getting 100 million?
Well, yes, there was. This was the number presented to Trump by his economic advisor, Peter Navarro, in late January. Navarro also mentioned that a million to two million of those infected could die. Bad for the economy. Bad, too, for Trump’s reelection, whose campaign was based on a booming economy. Bad news, period. So, of course, to be ignored.
Navarro didn’t push the issue. Neither did Alex N. Azar, head of the Department of Health and Human Services, who backed off when the boss made it clear that he wanted only happy talk from his minions. Meanwhile, the agencies supposedly on patrol were showing the results of systemic under-funding, under-staffing, and general evisceration under Trump. With the RNA of the virus finally released from China, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started making test kits to identify and track its spread. The kits malfunctioned, not because of poor design but because of a manufacturer that failed to observe the CDC’s own protocols. How was that? The CDC is, or was, the most highly regarded epidemiological center in the world. It can’t make test kits even when it knows what it’s looking for and how the kits are supposed to function? A month was lost to this fiasco, and even now test kits fail to identify at least 30 percent of infected persons.
The Food and Drug Administration was similarly bogged down in incompetence and bureaucratic stonewalling. The directors of these respective agencies, Robert R. Redfield and Stephen Hahn, are still in their jobs. Christi Grimm isn’t. She was the Deputy Inspector General at Health and Human Services who blew the whistle on the bungled strategies and critical shortages throughout the medical supply chain that are still crippling health care delivery. Bad news, ixnay!
None of this is ancient history. Trump, after first asserting his unfettered authority over the crisis, has now dumped all direction and responsibility for it on the states, thereby unleashing pandemonium on top of a pandemic. In no other country in the world has the national government pitted itself against local ones in dealing with the greatest global health menace in a century. It is, in fact, the greatest single abdication of public service responsibility in memory, while at the same time a deliberate fomenting of chaos in a Hobbesian race to the bottom. The result is that a nation with 4 percent of the world’s population has a third of its infections from the virus.
Nor is this the worst of it. Ostensibly on the sidelines, Trump has egged on the mobs who have besieged state legislatures to “reopen” their economies, regardless of risk — including the risk posed not merely by their congregation, but by the assault weapons (and Nazi insignia) some have carried. This will ultimately kill more, as is already evident in the spike in mortality rates in states whose governors — especially Trump acolytes — have yielded to demands for the restitution of such essential services as tattoo parlors and bowling alleys. There’s no mystery in this; Trump wants to point again to a booming economy at whatever the cost in lives, and, at an even more atavistic level, to return to the demagogic mass rallies on which he feeds. What he represents — what he manifests — is contamination, pure and simple.
This seems about as bad as it can get and — for a once-great nation — is an almost inconceivable fall. But, of course, it wasn’t hard to see what was coming next. In Trump-world, the storyline is always his. If the price of goosing the economy is seeding more death, then the Donald will ride to the rescue with a wonder drug produced at “warp speed,” just in time for or shortly after the November elections. Trump had hoped to find such a drug on the quick by promoting the miraculous powers of existing ones such as hydroxychloroquine. Quack medicine being the last refuge of the scoundrel, Trump asked what we had to lose by taking it. As it turned out, the answer would be, for some, their lives; and when Richard Bright of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority pointed out the dangers of using an untested drug on a disease other than that for which it was prescribed, he was promptly sacked. No bad news — and no backtalk!
The latest news from the CDC is that we can expect a 50 percent or more increase in the mortality rate from the coronavirus within this month, driven by the premature social distance easings and business reopenings pushed by Trump: more from the grim reaper in the White House. But at least there’s some good news buried in the bad. Someone is still willing to speak truth to power.