Washington is failing its coronavirus test

From the outset, the US response to the pandemic has been characterised by a shortage of testing kits, equipment and – most of all – leadership

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As the coronavirus pandemic rapidly develops into one of the greatest catastrophes in US history, Americans are starting to piece together the grim answer to the most obvious question: how did this happen? Obviously, it is difficult to prevent pandemics. And it has long been recognised that the world is highly vulnerable to such a calamity.

There was nothing inevitable, however, about the scope or scale of the human and economic toll on the US. It is now the main epicentre of the global pandemic. In raw numbers (assuming we have a full grasp of what transpired in China's epidemic) and in per capita terms, the US is doing worse than most other affected nations.

President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, Sunday, April 5, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
President Donald Trump speaks during a Coronavirus Task Force briefing at the White House, on April 5, 2020, in Washington. AP Photo

Yet the US had vast advantages in terms of potential resources, scientific knowledge and capability, medical infrastructure and economic strength than many other countries, such as South Korea or Singapore, which have dealt with the coronavirus onslaught much better.

Americans will be wrestling with this national nightmare for decades once it is resolved. But even now, while we are still in the early stages, it's entirely possible, and necessary, to identify the key errors that led to this historic fiasco. It is so dire that President Donald Trump now argues that if "only" 100,000-200,000 Americans die, that will prove he has done "a very good job."

First, it was generally understood that the Barack Obama administration did not handle the 2014 Ebola outbreak particularly well. Consequently, that administration put in place a number of directorates, working groups, studies and other structures to avoid such errors in the future.

FILE - In this April 1, 2020, file photo a woman wearing a face mask walks past the White House in Washington. Americans are increasingly taking preventative measures, including staying away from large crowds and avoiding touching their hands to their faces, amid growing fears of infection with COVID-19, a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found.  (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
A woman wearing a face mask walks past the White House in Washington, on April 1, 2020. AP Photo

The Trump administration, however, seemed to regard all of this as unnecessary fat, and virtually all of it was eliminated or ignored. Moreover, the Centres for Disease Control were woefully understaffed, with over 700 unfilled vacancies in the Trump era, key stockpiles of medicines and equipment were left un-replenished, and a programme to mass-produce cheap ventilators was allowed to collapse due to big-business machinations.

Meanwhile, experts were warning, loudly, for much of the past decade, that a devastating pandemic was virtually inevitable. On January 3, the Trump administration was informed by intelligence agencies that the coronavirus was spreading in China, and within the following week the gravity of the peril was being emphasised in the president’s daily intelligence briefing.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a Coronavirus Task Force news conference at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Sunday, April 5, 2020. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence said they see signs the U.S. coronavirus outbreak is beginning to level off or stabilize, citing a day-to-day reduction in deaths in New York, the Covid-19 epicenter in the country. Photographer: Tasos Katopodis/Bloomberg
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a Coronavirus Task Force news conference at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on April 5, 2020. Bloomberg

On January 18, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar tried to warn Mr Trump of the growing danger but he dismissed him as "alarmist" and wanted to discuss regulating flavored vaping juices instead. In the subsequent days and weeks officials continued to try to warm of the urgent threat to public health security and lack of sufficient preparation and equipment.

During that period, Mr Trump and his supporters repeatedly dismiss the virus as totally under control, akin to the regular flu, likely to magically disappear, and of little consequence.

However, other parts of the government decided to try to act. In one of the most consequential failures, the once respected CDC decided, on January 15, to spurn a World Health Organization coronavirus test and, for some reason, created its own. Those first shipped on February 8, but the CDC tests were flawed and produced radically inaccurate results. Yet the government continued to rely on those inaccurate tests for 21 days.

FILE - In this March 24, 2020, file photo New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference against a backdrop of medical supplies at the Jacob Javits Center that will house a temporary hospital in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference against a backdrop of medical supplies at a temporary hospital in response to the coronavirus outbreak in New York, on March 24, 2020. AP Photo

Meanwhile, numerous private, commercial and university labs around the country were trying to develop their own coronavirus tests, but on January 31 Mr Azar catastrophically issued a health emergency declaration in the United States, which effectively quashed all of these nongovernmental test projects and burdened them with ludicrous amounts of pointless red tape from the Food and Drug Administration.

So at a time when testing was crucial, the government’s own test failed, it refused a WHO test and it effectively shut down all private efforts to create an effective test. Those restrictions were finally relaxed on February 29, but with many crucial weeks lost.

Americans will be wrestling with this national nightmare for decades once it is resolved

Also on January 31, Mr. Trump announced a travel ban from China. This was reportedly debated for almost a month, with tens of thousands of travellers entering before it took effect. This measure was always going to be of limited utility, although it probably bought time. Assuming it did, however, that time was once again squandered.

Meanwhile, Mr Trump continued to assert that everything was absolutely under control and there was nothing to worry about whatsoever. And the scarcity of tests meant the virus spread far and wide, virtually undetected.

When he was finally forced to take the pandemic seriously, in mid-March, Mr Trump tried to rebrand himself a national wartime leader against “an invisible enemy.” But in fact, there has been no overarching national policy at all.

States have been told to “go find your own” equipment, including ventilators, pitting different parts of the country against one another in a battle for meager supplies. After Mr Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was inevitably given a key position in crafting this policy, he redefined the Strategic National Stockpile of supplies as belonging to the federal government for its use only. This novel definition was subsequently introduced into the government’s websites. It’s every man, city and state for themselves.

Meanwhile, even Mr Trump’s most distinguished scientific advisors say they cannot understand why the president refuses to issue a national “shelter in place” advisory, leaving it up to individual governors and even local officials. It is obvious that the virus cannot be contained simply in hotspots when people travel freely and several governors have refused to consider basic, common-sense measures in the national interest.

This gruesome tale of dereliction of duty, willful blindness, incompetence, bureaucracy run amok and mind-boggling failures of leadership is without doubt only the tip of the iceberg. In coming days, weeks and, indeed, years, more will become known.

As the death toll steadily balloons, the political, social and economic stakes in the battle over the narrative of what has gone so dreadfully wrong in the United States is rapidly mounting too.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington