MARK M. MCDERMOTT
March 26, 2020
We are all living with the stress of the coronavirus epidemic. The extraordinary incompetence, negligence and arrogance of President Trump and his administration have made the pain of this pandemic much worse than it is needs to be. Untold numbers of our family and community members will lose their lives and be sickened because of Trump’s failures. We need the truth of these failures and to spread this information widely.
I have written this concise timeline to help you communicate more effectively about the Trump administration’s extreme mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. Effective communication about this mismanagement is essential in separating the truth from the lies. I have provided footnotes so you can check my sources and for your own information.
PAVING THE ROAD TO DISASTER WITH NEEDLESS DEATHS AND SUFFERING
Since the start of his administration, Trump and his team systematically ignored the advice of multiple experts about the threats of a pandemic. These experts include his Director of National Intelligence, a leading Republican Congressman, many public health experts and health care industry leaders. At the same time, Trump and his team were dismantling key parts of our national early warning system and analytic and organizational capacity to respond quickly to a pandemic.
Here is the proof.
On May 11, 2017, Dan Coats, Trump’s Director of National Intelligence, told the U.S. Senate:
“A novel or reemerging microbe that is easily transmissible between humans and is highly pathogenic remains a major threat because such an organism has the potential to spread rapidly and kill millions.”
In May 2017, Republican Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma told Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, at a House budget hearing:
“Sometime in the president’s term, you will have a pandemic…You will have a Zika, you will have an Ebola.”
In May 2018, the Trump administration abolished the National Security Council’s Directorate for Global Health and Security and Bio-Defense. This Obama-era office was created to address the Ebola pandemic and other pandemics. Beth Cameron, its first director said “the directorate was set up to be the “smoke alarm…all with the goal of avoiding a six-alarm fire.”
On January 29, 2019, Mr. Coats issued another public warning:
“We assess that the United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or largescale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability.”
In July 2019, the Trump administration eliminated a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) medical epidemiologist position based in Beijing. This expert was working with China’s national disease control agency to identify any pandemics in China that might affect the United States. In March 2020, the CDC said that the termination “had absolutely nothing to do with CDC not learning of cases in China earlier.”
In November 2019, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security issued its final report. Its co-chairs were Kelly Ayotte, former Republican U.S. Senator from Vermont and Julie Gerberding, Executive VP of Merck, a large pharmaceutical company. The Commission recommended the following:
“The U.S. government should re-establish a directorate for global health security and biodefense on the National Security Council (NSC)… and name a senior-level leader in charge of coordinating U.S. efforts to anticipate, prevent, and respond to biological crises. These actions will ensure that the necessary leadership, authority, and accountability is in place to protect the United States from a deadly and costly health security emergency.”
For three years, the Trump administration had been repeatedly warned about the threat of a pandemic and to ensure our capacity to respond quickly and effectively. Instead of responding favorably, Trump and his allies continued to weaken our national capacity and failed to act decisively and wisely when the coronavirus pandemic arrived.
By January 2020, our nation was woefully unprepared for the pandemic. This was not an accident. It was a failure of leadership.
A TALE OF TWO COUNTRIES
South Korea and the United States both reported their first coronavirus case in the same week in late January. The contrast in the responses are damning proof of Trump’s incompetence and negligence.
The South Korean response.
Their government took swift action and convened an emergency meeting with governmental leaders and medical companies even though only 4 cases had been reported. A leading infectious disease expert said:
“We were very nervous. We believed that it could develop into a pandemic. We acted like an army.”
The United States response.
On January 22, 2020, President Trump was asked: “Are there worries about a pandemic at this point?” His response: “No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control.”
January 30th: “We have it well under control.”
February 19th: “I think the numbers are going to get progressively better as we go along.”
February 26th: “We’re going down, not up. We’re going down very substantially down, not up.”
February 29th: Vaccine “very quickly” and his actions are “the most aggressive taken by any country.”
March 7th: “I’m not concerned at all.”
March 10th: “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”
Alex Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services: “There is no testing kit shortage, nor has there ever been.” Trump, while touring the C.D.C. on March 6, said, “Anybody that wants a test can get a test.”
Within 7 weeks, South Korea had conducted 290,000 tests and identified 8,000 infections. By mid-March, their reported infection rate was dropping rapidly from a daily peak of 900+ per day to less than 100 per day. Swift, organized and systematic planning and action were winning the day.
During the same time period, our country had tested only 60,000 people as the infection and death rates were climbing steadily. Stories surfaced many places about the lack of available tests, inadequate personal protective gear for health care workers and growing crises in health facilities.
Trump’s inept leadership is highlighted by the Center for Disease Control’s current guidelines about personal protective equipment (PPE) for use by health care staff:
“In settings where facemasks are not available, health care providers (HCP) might use homemade masks (e.g., bandana, scarf) for care of patients with COVID-19 as a last resort. However, homemade masks are not considered PPE, since their capability to protect HCP is unknown. Caution should be exercised.”
On March 23rd, Washington State’s epidemiologist reported: “We have health care workers wearing bandannas at this point.”
Our nation owes it to all of our dedicated health care workers and all patients that they have the protective equipment and medical equipment they need.
MY REFLECTIONS – LEADERSHIP REALLY MATTERS.
We spend more on health care per person than any country. We are the richest country in the world. We have 6 times the population of South Korea. Our annual Gross Domestic Product is 13 times larger than South Korea. South Korea has been testing their population at 19 times the rate of our country.
Why has South Korea been so successful in their response to the pandemic? Why has our response been so tragically inept?
The answer is leadership. South Korea’s government was prepared in advance, listened to the experts and mobilized accordingly. Trump and his team systematically ignored the advice of experts for years, refused to recognize the truth of the pandemic, and failed to act as a competent leader conveying clear consistent messages.
This is not a failure due to a lack of resources. It is not due to a lack of skilled hard working medical workers. It is a colossal failure of leadership. How many people will die or be sickened in our country due to this failure of leadership? This is a key question for the 2020 election.
In March, Trump said this about the pandemic:
“This is something that you can never really think is going to happen.”
That answer is profoundly unacceptable. A capable responsible leader hopes for the best and plans for the worst. He/she listens to experts who know more than they do. The plans should be based on the best science available, communicated clearly and honestly, and implemented quickly and effectively.
In closing, I have deep compassion and empathy for those who suffer and die whether they are patients or workers on the front lines. I take my hat off to the health care workers, grocery workers, first responders and so many others who are working hard in these most trying times. My heart aches for the millions who are suffering needlessly due to this incompetence and negligence. We can do better as a nation.
My next article on the pandemic will discuss a longer historical perspective of how we got in this needless mess.
I can be contacted in the following ways:
References, in order
Baumgartner, Emily, Trump’s Proposed Budget Cuts Trouble Bioterrorism Experts,” New York Times, May 28, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/28/us/politics/biosecurity-trump-budget-defense.html
Sun, Lena, “Top White House official in charge of pandemic response exits abruptly,” Washington Post, May 10, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2018/05/10/top-white-house-official-in-charge-of-pandemic-response-exits-abruptly/
Reichmann, Deb, “Trump disbanded NSC pandemic unit that experts had praised,” ABC, March 14, 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/wireStory/trump-disbanded-nsc-pandemic-unit-experts-praised-69594177
Coats, Dan, “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, January 29, 2019, https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/2019-ATA-SFR—SSCI.pdf
Taylor, Marisa, “Exclusive: U.S. axed CDC expert job in China months before virus outbreak,” Reuters, March 22, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-china-cdc-exclusiv/exclusive-u-s-axed-cdc-expert-job-in-china-months-before-virus-outbreak-idUSKBN21910S
Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Ending the Cycle of Crisis and Complacency in U.S. Global Health Security: A Report of the CSIS Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security,” November 2019, https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/191122_EndingTheCycle_GHSC_WEB_FULL_11.22.pdf
Terhune, Chad et al, “Special Report: How Korea trounced U.S. in race to test people for coronavirus,” Reuters, March 18, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-testing-specialrep-idUSKBN2153BW
Leonhardt, David, “A Complete List of Trump’s Attempts to Play Down Coronavirus,” New York Times, March 15, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/15/opinion/trump-coronavirus.html
CDC, “Strategies for Optimizing the Supply of Facemasks,” website accessed March 23, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/ppe-strategy/face-masks.html
Bernton, Hal, and Kamb, Lewis, “’Our warehouse is empty’: Washington state epidemiologist describes severe shortage of medical supplies, Seattle Times, March 20, 2020. https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/our-warehouses-are-empty-washington-state-epidemiologist-describes-severe-shortages-of-medical-supply-amid-coronavirus-outbreak/
Investopedia, “The Top 20 Economies in the World,” accessed March 23, 2020. https://www.investopedia.com/insights/worlds-top-economies/#12-south-korea  Reichmann, Deb, ABC, March 14, 2020.