COVID-19: We had the warning but we lacked the leadership

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While the coronavirus crisis will cost immeasurably more in lives and treasure than 9/11, the parallel between the two is eerie, and the difference is tragic. In both cases, the country had exquisite strategic warning and did nothing. The difference is that in the instance of COVID-19, there was also plenty of tactical warning — China announced cases at the end of December and identified the new virus a few days later. But still we did nothing.

In the years before 9/11, one blue-ribbon panel after another warned that terrorism would come to America’s shores, but in the summer of 2011, the tactical warning of an imminent attack was far too vague to persuade national leaders to take drastic measures. I was running the RAND Corporation’s Center for Global Risk and Security in the early 2000s when it ranked threats as existential, serious and nuisance. Terrorism was in the nuisance category — killing fewer Americans than lightning — and the only threat in the existential category was pandemics.  

We had lots of company in that ranking. The National Intelligence Council (NIC), which I later chaired, warned in the 2004 version of “Global Trends,” looking out two decades to 2020:  “Some experts believe it is only a matter of time before a new pandemic appears, such as the 1918-1919 influenza virus that killed an estimated 20 million worldwide.” With startling prescience, it assessed that such a pandemic would “put a halt to global travel and trade during an extended period, prompting governments to expend enormous resources on overwhelmed health sectors.”

Yet, in the case of coronavirus, the United States squandered at least two months of tactical warning, all the less forgivable given the practice runs with SARS in 2002-2004 and H1N1 in 2009, especially the latter. It, happily, was not very lethal, with a death rate of .02 percent, but still killed 12,000 Americans. A Department of Health and Human Services exercise last fall, “Crimson Contagion,” virtually laid out what is happening now. In the instance of 9/11, it is easy — and probably fair — to say that the tactical warning in the summer of 2001 was not nearly precise enough to justify the cost of possible countermeasures.

Not so for COVID-19.  After H1N1, it had to be assumed that if a virus appeared in China, it would come here. Indeed, epidemiologists have worried about “jet spread” since the swine flu scare of the 1970s. Moreover, the measures that needed to be taken this time around — stockpiling protective gear and developing tests, for example — were neither dramatic nor costly.  Worse, this squander meant that for the first two months of the crisis, the nation was flying blind: We had no intelligence. Almost literally, for want of tests from late January through mid-March, the nation was compelled to destroy its economy because it could do nothing more targeted to where the disease was most prevalent.  

The result was a tragic failure — alas, one that colleagues and I predicted a year ago. In March 2019, we, having spent years in the public service of the American people, sounded the tocsin that declines in the capability of the U.S. federal workforce had put our government — and thus our nation and our very way of life — at the risk of failing. We did not make such a claim lightly but only after a review of trends over the past two decades, through both data and interviews in a non-partisan framework. There were obvious indications then that our circumstances were very abnormal, indeed unprecedented for the health and well-being of the country. The responsive collaboration between officials in the public and private sectors we came to take for granted would founder because, for too long, we neglected the functioning of government. 

Unfortunately, our warnings, like Cassandra’s about the Trojan horse, went unheeded. Now, in March 2020, we face the existential threat of COVID-19. Make no mistake, there are nonpartisan, committed public servants at all levels of government. They will do all they can, selflessly and at danger to themselves, to navigate these challenging times.  

Yet the anatomy of the failure — the worst in nearly a century — is haunting. The crown jewels of American government, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), not only didn’t act quickly, they got in the way of private initiatives that could have given the country a start. CDC botched its own first batch of tests, and one University of Washington laboratory was told in January that it couldn’t repurpose previous specimens from flu tests because of privacy concerns. The needed tests for surveillance were not hard and didn’t need to be perfect. Turned loose, private laboratories all over the country could have produced them.  

So why not? The easy answer is leadership. The day before the World Health Organization declared COVID a global pandemic, President Trump said: “And we’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.” Interestingly, in the absence of national leadership — or, better said, the presence of negative national leadership — state and local leaders, such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, became the “go-to” sources.

Yet the Europeans, especially Italy, also were slow off the mark, and while their contexts were somewhat different, they had neither a self-absorbed leader nor a dysfunctional public health system. What gives? Heeding warnings requires doing something, and the something is usually expensive or politically uncomfortable, or both. Mix that with a little wishful thinking — sure, H1N1 came here and killed, but only by a third of an annual flu season’s total — and you get dithering. Before the fact, the consequences are unpredictable, another reason to delay. Yet, by the time the consequences are clear, as now with COVID-19, it is too late.  

Finally, the administration’s dithering incoherence immobilized the government. Government is built to be conservative, full of checks and balances intended to prevent “fraud, waste and abuse,” and constructed to avoid risks, not take them. As a result, absent leadership from the top, mid-level officials in the civil service will play it by the book. This is not to excuse CDC or FDA, but imagine an official short-cutting procedures or circumventing regulations to respond to the crisis when the president is saying “it’ll go away.” It wasn’t going to happen. And, alas, thousands of Americans may die needlessly because of the failure. 

Gregory F. Treverton chaired the U.S. National Intelligence Council from 2014 to January 2017.  He is now professor of the Practice of International Relations and Spatial Sciences at the University of Southern California and chairman of the Global TechnoPolitics Forum. He is the author of numerous books including “Dividing Divided States” (2014), “National Intelligence and Science: Beyond the Great Divide in Analysis and Policy” (2015) and “Intelligence for an Age of Terror” (2011).

Molly Jahn is founding principal of Jahn Research Group and a professor on leave from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with an adjunct appointment as senior research scientist at Columbia University.

Tags Andrew Cuomo Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump FDA Pandemic

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