Dystopia Journal #40: 70 Days

Dystopia Journal #40: 70 Days April 15, 2020

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Over a month later, our efforts at flattening the curve are working. The coronavirus strained the health-care system to the limit, but New York and other northeastern states that were hit hard are starting to see hospital admissions leveling off. But that small success has come at a high cost.

As of mid-April, over 25,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, and that number is climbing by the day. What’s more, that number is certainly a massive undercount – because many states, especially red states that initially denied and downplayed the threat, have still only done a few thousand tests. There’s no way they’ve captured the extent of the community spread that’s already happening. The true figure could be several times larger than the reported number.

Was this inevitable? In an age of dense cities and routine air travel, was it impossible to contain a highly contagious new disease? After all, other industrialized countries with health-care systems better than ours have suffered just as badly. Would COVID-19 have become a global pandemic no matter who was president?

There’s no way to know what might have happened in a different possible world. But one thing that happened in this world, we now know, is that the Trump administration got warnings weeks in advance, and did nothing about them:

The Trump administration received its first formal notification of the outbreak of the coronavirus in China on Jan. 3. Within days, U.S. spy agencies were signaling the seriousness of the threat to Trump by including a warning about the coronavirus — the first of many — in the President’s Daily Brief.

And yet, it took 70 days from that initial notification for Trump to treat the coronavirus not as a distant threat or harmless flu strain well under control, but as a lethal force that had outflanked America’s defenses and was poised to kill tens of thousands of citizens. That more-than-two-month stretch now stands as critical time that was squandered.

We also know that, as early as January 18, Trump was told by HHS Secretary Alex Azar that the new coronavirus was a major public health threat. There were multiple high-level memos about the danger, one on January 29, more in mid-February urging social distancing, canceling mass gatherings, and other preparation. Joe Biden wrote an op-ed about it on January 27. But nothing was done, because Trump was preoccupied with petty bickering and rage-fits at government officials who were trying to warn the public:

Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, announced in a press conference on February 26 that the virus was here and it was spreading. She also publicly announced a version of the plan that had yet to be presented to Trump, called “Community Mitigation Guidelines to Prevent Pandemic Influenza.”

Trump’s anger at the announcement of these guidelines, and the effect it had on a plummeting stock market, prompted him to demote Azar as the leader of the White House’s response, replacing him with Vice President Mike Pence. He then stalled the White House’s efforts to enact social distancing measures and other community-level actions until March 16.

What did Donald Trump do between January 3 and March 21? The depressing, predictable answer was: he spent weeks tweeting about it, alternately praising himself for doing “a great job”, calling the virus a Democratic “hoax”, and insisting that it would disappear “like a miracle”. These weeks of wasted time and inaction ensured that the coronavirus had free rein to spread silently across America, gathering momentum to erupt into a fifty-state crisis.

Not only did Trump not take any action in response to the warnings he was receiving, his first impulse was to cover them up. As late as March 11, the White House ordered meetings about COVID-19 to be classified to choke the flow of information – which also meant that qualified experts without security clearances couldn’t participate.

He also resisted the suggestion to begin mass testing immediately, because he believed that more cases in the U.S. would hurt his re-election effort. He thought that by not testing, he could conceal the extent of the problem and keep it from hurting his poll numbers. When local scientists were alarmed by the absence of federal help and started developing their own tests, the CDC and FDA forced them to stop. The Trump administration also refused to use the WHO’s test early on, for reasons that remain unexplained.

These are just more pieces of evidence to add to a pattern of catastrophic bungling, incompetence, and malicious short-sightedness going back years. We also know, now, that the Pentagon foresaw the threat of a novel respiratory disease pandemic back in 2017, and warned presciently that there would be a shortage of ventilators, personal protective equipment and intensive-care hospital beds, but no action was taken in response to this report.

And just two months before the beginning of the pandemic, the Trump administration shut down Predict, a $200 million program that trained and organized scientists in developing countries to investigate and contain new disease outbreaks.

What should they have done instead? What could they have done? To answer that question, you can see what President Obama did when there was a dangerous disease outbreak during his presidency:

When Ebola spread out of the Guinea borders into neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone in July 2014, President Obama activated the Emergency Operations Center at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. The CDC immediately deployed CDC personnel to West Africa to coordinate a response that included vector tracing, testing, education, logistics, and communication.

Altogether, the CDC, under President Obama, trained 24,655 medical workers in West Africa, educating them on how to prevent and control the disease before a single case left Africa or reached the U.S.

Working with the U.N. and the World Health Organization President Obama ordered the re-routing of travelers heading to the U.S. through certain specific airports equipped to handle mass testing.

Back home in America, more than 6,500 people were trained through mock outbreaks and practice scenarios. That was done before a single case hit America.

Three months after President Obama activated this unprecedented response, on September 30, 2014, we detected our first case in the U.S.A. A man had traveled from West Africa to Dallas and somehow slipped through the testing protocol. He was immediately detected and isolated. He died a week later. Two nurses who tended to him contracted Ebola but later recovered. All the protocols had worked. It was contained.

The Ebola epidemic could have easily become a pandemic, but thanks to the actions of our government under President Obama, it never did.

…It is ironic because since President Obama acted decisively we forget about his actions since the disease never reached our shores.

To see a country doing the right thing about COVID-19, just look to New Zealand, whose progressive prime minister Jacinda Ardern recognized the seriousness of the threat early on and acted decisively, locking down the country before a trickle of cases became a deluge.

As a result, New Zealand has become a standout world success story, holding both the number of cases and the number of deaths to unprecedentedly low levels:

“We will do everything to protect you; I’m asking you to do all you can to protect all of us,” she added, with a Kennedy-esque touch.

“Be strong and be kind,” she repeated, smiling, before taking many questions from the media, smiling again when she was asked if she was scared. “No,” she said. “Because we have a plan.”

Although the pandemic has taken and is taking a dreadful toll on the world, there have been bright spots. Leaders with intelligence, with empathy, and with the competence and humility to listen to experts have been able to steer their countries through it relatively unscathed. The U.S. chose to elect a president who possesses none of these qualities, and we’re all paying the price.

Image based on HARRIS.news via Wikimedia Commons, released under CC BY-SA 3.0 license

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