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Coronavirus: Your government failed you

 

As the carnage from COVID-19 in the United States continues to mount at the unthinkable rate of 2,000 deaths per day and with unemployment possibly reaching 32 percent, the evidence now demonstrates without a shadow of a doubt that the United States government has failed its citizens in its most fundamental duty — protecting it from catastrophic danger.  

While even a perfect response could not have kept the virus from coming to America, it is now clear that the federal government’s bungling and President TrumpDonald TrumpKushner lands book deal, slated for release in 2022 Biden moves to undo Trump trade legacy with EU deal Progressives rave over Harrison's start at DNC MORE’s inept decision making over the past 10 weeks has turned a large-scale public health crisis into an unprecedented health, economic and security disaster.  

Following 9/11, White House counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke told the nation that: “Your government failed you,” but the Trump administration’s performance on COVID-19 has been far, far worse than the intelligence community’s failure to prevent 9/11. 

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After all, al Qaeda was a small, clandestine organization plotting a highly sophisticated, and entirely novel type of terrorist attack. The virulence of COVID-19, however, has been in plain sight since early January and the intelligence community has been flashing the warning lights about the potential dangers of pandemic disease for years.  

The government’s series of cascading mistakes started when the Trump administration proposed a massive 17 percent cut ($1.2 billion) for the Centers for Disease Control in its first full budget request to Congress. Then, in the summer of 2018, the administration folded the global health directorate in the NSC into one with a far broader mandate. While some claim this change was merely streamlining, the administration belatedly recognized it had a flawed structure and had to create a White House coronavirus task force.

The evidence now shows that — like the intelligence briefing delivered to President Bush on Aug. 6, 2001, entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Attack the United States  — Trump was warned early and often about the dangers of COVID-19: by the NSC in early January and by trade advisor Peter Navarro on Jan. 29. When Secretary Alex Azar tried to prompt the president into taking stronger action in late January, he was dismissed as “alarmist.” 

Prior to 9/11, the intelligence community lacked sufficient information to stop the 9/11 attacks. In contrast, prior administrations had bequeathed the White House a detailed step-by-step playbook for responding to a pandemic.  

Had the playbook been followed, the first critical step would have been to strongly pressure China to allow an international team of public health experts to be allowed into Wuhan. Trump offered to send the CDC experts, but did not insist. Our experts did not gain access until Feb. 22, when outbreaks were already occurring in 30 cities in 26 countries.  

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The single strong preventative measure the administration put in place — halting travel of foreign nationals from China into the U.S. on Jan. 31 — was botched.  Trump dawdled putting it in place, while 381,000 people traveled from China to the U.S. in January, including 4,000 from Wuhan. Worse yet, passengers continued to flow unimpeded into the United States from countries experiencing serious outbreaks like Italy and Spain throughout February and early March. Health screening at our airports has been spotty to non-existent.  

Once the virus had deeply penetrated our borders, the only way to avoid disaster was to implement a robust testing and contact tracing system. However, in February, the CDC distributed a flawed test to public health departments. Then the FDA barred labs from developing their own test kits. By the time the FDA finally waived its regulations it was too late. The U.S. had tested only 4,000 people, whereas South Korea had completed over 66,000 tests and was testing at a rate of 3,000 per day.  

Having failed to contain the spread of COVID, the United States was forced to resort to the crudest and most economically damaging pandemic prevention measure available — a lockdown. Even then, the Trump administration led from behind, with sports leagues and universities shutting down first, followed by governors acting aggressively to bar large gatherings and issue stay-at-home orders. The federal government finally issued non-binding social distancing guidelines on March 16, after Trump personally rebuffed health experts’ requests to take stronger action a month earlier.  

Finally, and most tragically, our country was left flatfooted and unprepared to provide health care workers the equipment they needed to fight this dread disease. The administration did not seek emergency COVID funding until Feb. 25, and even then, Congress provided seven-times more funding than the paltry initial request on a bipartisan basis. Trump refused  to use the federal government’s purchasing power to address the shortage, claiming he was not “a shipping clerk,” and then started playing politics with distribution of ventilators from the national stockpile.  

Now, half-way through April, the irreversible damage is piling up every day. We top the globe in both the number of COVID infections and deaths. The testing system we need to begin to return to normalcy remains dysfunctional. Young children have lost months of their education; the mental health implications of long-term social distancing are incalculable. Sixteen million Americans have lost their jobs, with millions more to come. Despite the trillions in aid appropriated by the Congress, many millions will fall into poverty, or have their life’s savings wiped out to endure this crisis.  

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It didn’t have to be this way.

America, your government has failed you. Again.  

David Schanzer is a professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.