Alan Zendell, March 14, 2020
In recent years, whenever our leaders debated foreign policy, borders, women’s rights, climate change mitigation, the nation cringed watching partisanship, special interest money, and individual self-interest derail attempts at reasonable resolution. We got angry, we poked fun at them, we argued among ourselves about what to do about it. Very little got done, but for most people life went on as long as there was food on the table, our families were healthy, and we could divert ourselves with what was really important: football playoffs, March Madness, taking the kids to Disneyland.
We watched our government fail to act or to act wrongheadedly time and again, but the consequences always seemed far down the road. When we were assured that it was all part of a grand plan to make America great again, the majority of Americans called Bullshit, but as long as money was pouring into their investment accounts, our Congress and our Executive Branch were content with stalemate. If America was losing greatness, it was because we were too busy enjoying life or struggling to survive; we opted out of our responsibilities and lost sight of the world we were leaving our children.
Early in the Trump administration it was clear that he disdained science and preferred his own uninformed opinions to those of experts. He knew what was best. He didn’t need advice from generals or diplomats. His advisors were unqualified family members and extremists bent on preserving their wealth and retaining the white majority on which their power depended. We limped along, losing allies, diminishing our influence on world events, sensing that democracy was being attacked, but disaster wasn’t imminent, so with the exception of a reversal in the 2018 election, we let it all happen.
When the president decided that pandemic preparedness wasn’t a strategic need, and he removed that function from our national security apparatus and slashed its budget, most Americans ignored the warning cries from medical professionals who said we wouldn’t be able to react in time to protect our population if another disease took hold. It wasn’t as if the probability of that happening was low – unlike the one in a billion chance of an extinction event caused by an asteroid collision, we face potential pandemic threats every few years – but we let that happen too, and we’ll pay a heavy for our malfeasance.
Faced with a crisis, some leaders drop the ball, some act in good faith but fail anyway, and some act effectively through preparedness and focusing on the right priorities to avert disaster. The Trump administration, which has pushed an isolationist, go-it-alone philosophy from the start, had it wrong from the beginning. It’s been ten weeks since the world media first reported on the COVID-19 virus, but desperate to prevent anything that hurt his re-election chances, Trump resorted to restricting travel from China as if that could protect us.
Our disease prevention experts knew it wouldn’t. They knew that in today’s world, a disease that is highly contagious that can go undetected for weeks is unstoppable. When Dr. Anthony Fauci explained, last week, that our best defense against the COVID-19 virus is flattening the curve of the rate of infection, he made it clear that we can’t prevent it from spreading. The best we can do is slow the spread so our medical resources aren’t overwhelmed.
Fauci admitted that our national approach to this pandemic was a failure, but in the interest of making the best of a horrifying situation, he left out the rest of the truth. We lost ten weeks of preparation that might have spared the nation much of the suffering it’s about to experience. The need for preparedness to slow the spread of the virus feels new to most of us, but it was common knowledge to the professionals tasked with protecting us. They knew we were unprepared in January. They watched in frustration as China, South Korea, and Japan ramped up emergency actions, knowing we needed to do the same things.
Yesterday, Donald Trump refused to accept responsibility for the present crisis, when in fact, his calculated refusal to act will result in pain, suffering, financial ruin, and death for countless Americans that could have been avoided. Compare South Korea, which was able to keep its own COVID-19 fatality rate under one percent, with Italy, where an inability to identify the spread of the virus in time resulted in a reported fatality rate of fourteen percent.
Trump could have declared a national emergency in January and suspended all regulations that slowed down our preparedness by executive order. He could have freed states, university researchers, and the private sector to develop their own resources so we could take preventive measures when they mattered most. But he didn’t, because he knew the financial markets would crash as they did over the past two weeks, and that would threaten his re-election.
Pandering to racists, caving in to the NRA, attacking our courts and vilifying the press were bad enough. But now, Trump is going to have blood on his hands. He could have protected Americans the way South Korea protected its citizens with a few strokes of his pen, but he chose not to until it was too late.