On Jan. 31, 2020, President TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE barred foreign nationals who had been in China in the past 14 days from entering the United States. This move bought the United States time to prepare for what most experts saw as an inevitable onslaught from COVID-19. The key to using that time was to develop tests for the virus and a plan to implement widespread testing. By the time of the first community spread of the virus within the United States on Feb. 26, 2020, we had failed to do that.
The investigation into what happened during this lost month has already begun and will be a key component in histories of the spread of COVID-19. While it is wise to be cautious about assigning blame for a catastrophe, understanding responsibility is important. Doing so not only informs upcoming electoral choices but also teaches us about how to structure government to respond to later stages of this crisis and for the inevitable future crises.
Any assignment of responsibility must recognize that doing so is complicated. A disaster of the magnitude of the spread of the COVID-19 virus has no single origin. But at the same time, this complexity should not deter us from trying to understand what happened. While there were at least four components to the failure to develop a COVID-19 testing regime, these components are not all equal in their contributions.
One factor in the testing failure is simple bad luck. We tend to underestimate the role that randomness plays in our lives. The fact that the first test developed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) failed is not incompetence, but rather misfortune. But because misfortune has to be expected, a sound governmental system prepares for it.
Bureaucratic failure also occurred. Agencies defaulted to business as usual when they should have been “thinking outside the box.” CDC was slow to start community surveillance. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was slow to relax regulations that made it hard for private industry to make new tests more broadly available. These are examples of common bureaucratic pathologies of slowly adapting to change and a reluctance to take appropriate risks.
But overcoming those pathologies is a primary job of the presidential appointees at the top of these agencies. Doing so is how wars are won and crises are managed. It is never easy — but it is much harder if those in charge of the government do not recognize that massive government intervention is a prerequisite for dealing with a crisis. It is also much harder if those in charge of the government refuse to acknowledge that a crisis exists.
The Trump administration came into office pledging to “deconstruct the administrative state.” This manifested itself in attempting to hollow out the capacity of government. It is this mentality that led to the dismissal of a pandemic response team. It is this mentality that leads to a reliance on people such as the president’s son-in-law with no government experience to manage government response during a crisis (think back to “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”). It is this mentality that makes responding to a crisis so much harder.
The second pernicious impact of the administration on the bureaucratic response was the rhetoric on the virus throughout February. As leaders (including the president) made claims that warm weather would kill the virus, and that the number of cases was “going down,” the message was unmistakable. The president and his top appointees did not want information spread or actions taken that would make clear that the virus was a historically deadly problem. It is not surprising that the career officials who work for the administration reacted slowly and with trepidation throughout February — doing otherwise risked repudiation from their boss.
In the early 20th Century — as the country grew and its problems became more complex — the need for technical expertise in government became greater. But fitting that expertise within a democratic framework was persistently tricky. The solution was the creation of a very large executive branch with agencies that were constrained by laws passed by Congress but that reported to the president for accountability for their day-to-day actions.
At the top of this structure is the president. President Harry Truman famously kept the saying “The Buck Stops Here” on his desk.
Our public health agencies were plagued by misfortune and made mistakes as the COVID-19 virus spread. But those problems could have been overcome by effective leadership. They weren’t. And instead of overcoming them, the Trump administration, by pushing to reduce the capacity of government and pressuring agencies to minimize the impacts of the virus, made disastrous outcomes more likely.
Stuart Shapiro is professor and director of the Public Policy Program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Follow him on Twitter @shapiro_stuart.