President Trump, having stopped dismissing the threat of the coronavirus and calling criticism of his laggard response “their new hoax,” has begun insisting everybody was shocked. “It’s something that nobody expected,” he has said. Conservative pundits have picked up this revisionist history. “Armchair Quarterbacks Try to Rewrite History on Coronavirus,” argues National Review’s David Harsanyi. “Generalized ‘Trump didn’t take this seriously enough!’ stuff is ignoring the timeline, wherein every major Democrat didn’t take it very seriously until early March either,” insists Ben Shapiro.
One example of a major Democrat who took this seriously would be Joe Biden, who, as the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, is arguably the major Democrat. Biden wrote an op-ed on January 27 warning that Trump had left the country unprepared to handle the coronavirus outbreak, and proposing steps to counter it. One of his main advisers, Ron Klain, wrote an op-ed making similar points five days before that.
The primary defense made of Trump is to compare his laggard response against the straw-man alternative in which the only alternative was to close down everything three months ago. “Now we’re going to act as if politicians were negligent for failing to try to lock down the entire economy in early January?” writes Harsanyi mockingly. Obviously, there were numerous steps available short of a total lockdown. Indeed, the massive lockdown was only necessary because Trump failed to take any advance steps, like mobilizing an effective testing system, stockpiling masks and ventilators, and reconstituting some kind of structure to replace the pandemic response team he dismantled in 2018.
Trump has blithely tweeted that “it will all work out well.” Yet the steps he has taken as president have only weakened our capacity to respond.
Trump has rolled back much of the progress President Obama and I made to strengthen global health security. He proposed draconian cuts to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Agency for International Development — the very agencies we need to fight this outbreak and prevent future ones.
He dismissed the top White House official in charge of global health security and dismantled the entire team. And he has treated with utmost contempt institutions that facilitate international cooperation, thus undermining the global efforts that keep us safe from pandemics and biological attacks.
To be blunt, I am concerned that the Trump administration’s shortsighted policies have left us unprepared for a dangerous epidemic that will come sooner or later.
Pandemic diseases are a prime example of why international cooperation is a requirement of leadership in 2020. Diseases do not stop at borders. They cannot be thwarted by building a wall. We cannot keep ourselves safe without helping to keep others safe as well and without enlisting the help of other nations in return. And here’s the truth — the United States must step forward to lead these efforts, because no other nation has the resources, the reach or the relationships to marshal an effective international response.
With one confirmed case on U.S. soil, more likely already here and 8,000 visitors from China arriving every day, it is already too late to avoid multiple cases of the dangerous new coronavirus in the United States. We are past the “if” question and squarely facing the “how bad will it be” phase of the response.Thus, President Trump failed his first test in dealing with the virus, by brashly asserting that the U.S. government has the coronavirus “completely under control.” While there is no reason to panic, we simply do not know, with China’s seventh-largest city under a lockdown, how serious it will become.
The good news is that there have been substantial improvements to global and U.S. public-health systems since the related SARS virus struck in 2003. U.S. infectious disease response systems were particularly improved after the West African Ebola epidemic of 2014. The new coronavirus’s gene was sequenced rapidly, and a test to diagnose the disease has already been developed. The World Health Organization — properly criticized for a flaccid response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak — is moving quickly: organizing a response and meeting urgently to determine if a Public Health Emergency of International Concern should be declared.