Trump's hubris and ideological rigidity will cost American lives

Many of my closest friends are physicians and nurses on the front lines of the viral pandemic sweeping America. Too many of them face dire shortages of masks and other protective equipment. As they brace for an influx of patients, their hospitals are in short supply of life-saving breathing machines. Meanwhile, a catastrophic shortfall in testing kits prevented any semblance of an effective response to COVID-19.

America, in short, is in the midst of a first-world health care catastrophe. And President Trump bears much of the blame.

Despite Trump’s repeated claims that this pandemic was “unforeseen” and “came out of nowhere,” America’s intelligence agencies have long warned of a deadly, highly infectious pandemic like COVID-19. Unsurprisingly, the government retains detailed pandemic response plans, which were ignored by the Trump administration.

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Moreover, the Obama administration conducted an in-depth disaster preparedness exercise simulating a viral outbreak – remarkably similar to what the world confronts today – for the incoming Trump administration. Since then, Trump has fired most of the key participants and proceeded to disband a critical pandemic response team.

Worse, President Trump began receiving dire intelligence warnings as far back as January that COVID-19 was likely to significantly impact the United States. One official lamented that, while the experts knew that a catastrophic outbreak was likely, “they just couldn’t get [Trump] to do anything about it.”

For two agonizing months, Trump downplayed and marginalized ominous daily intelligence briefings. According to Trump: “We have [COVID-19] totally under control.” “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” “We stopped it.” The list of Trump’s false and misleading statements during this critical two-month window is staggeringly long.  

Trump’s hubris, lies and braggadocio have finally caught up with him. Instead of squandering valuable time by openly contradicting the experts, the president should have ordered America’s health agencies to prepare for the worst.

Based on Taiwan, Singapore, Japan and South Korea's responses to COVID-19, it is abundantly clear that two months of meticulous planning and preparation would have saved countless American lives. Yet, during one of the shockingly few phone calls between Trump and his secretary of health and human services during this critical period, the president was only interested in discussing vaping products.

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As the outbreak spread, Trump’s ambivalence led to a staggering shortage of testing kits. Had the president listened to the experts (and engaged federal agencies accordingly), the worst of the outbreak could have been avoided at this critical juncture.

In stark contrast to the Trump administration, South Korea mustered a remarkable, life-saving response to COVID-19 thanks to an aggressive testing program that facilitated early identification and isolation of cases. For his part, Trump’s inattention to the looming crisis and the associated delays and errors in disseminating test kits nationwide will emerge as his administration’s single deadliest blunder.

Instead of empty braggadocio and deflection, two months of coordinated preparation would also have identified nationwide shortages of protective equipment. Shortfalls are so dire that physicians and nurses are resorting to reusing protective equipment, placing themselves and their patients at risk.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was forced to issue guidance for health care workers to use bandanas and scarves when hospitals run out of masks. In a valiant effort to make up for two months of Trump administration dithering, everyday Americans are dusting off their sewing machines to address the shortfall.

Beyond protective equipment, a shortage of ventilators is likely to lead to heart-wrenching decisions about who lives and who dies in America’s hospitals.

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Doctors, nurses and hospital administrators are pleading with President Trump to invoke emergency powers that would fill these staggering gaps in life-saving equipment. Despite months of dire warnings, Trump steadfastly refused to do so until it was far too late.

Thanks to the president’s ideological stubbornness, American states continue to engage in bidding wars for desperately-needed protective equipment. Governors are fighting other governors for resources, resulting in rampant profiteering and inefficient distribution of scarce, life-saving equipment in the midst of a national crisis.

While Trump’s characteristic hubris and dismissal of expert opinion will cost countless American lives, his long delay in invoking temporary, life-saving emergency authorities is equally unconscionable.

Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.