28 March 2020   Leave a comment

The Guardian has published an article about the time lost in the US before there was an adequaste response to the spread of COVID-19. The newspaper is a lefty newspaper and its critique of the Trump Administration is biting. It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss the article because of possible bias–there are too many specific dates and events cataloged in the article to argue that its critique is unfair.

The first documented case of COVID-19 in the US occurred on 20 January 2020 (I posted about the coronavirus on 22 January–one did not have to be an expert to know that something significant was going on in China). The New York Times documents the fact that the Director of the US Center for Disease Control, Dr. Robert Redfield, knew about the seriousness of the virus early on:

“The first time Dr. Robert Redfield heard about the severity of the virus from his Chinese counterparts was around New Year’s Day, when he was on vacation with his family. He spent so much time on the phone that they barely saw him. And what he heard rattled him; in one grim conversation about the virus days later, George F. Gao, the director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, burst into tears.”

NBC News provides evidence of how the US intelligence agencies warned the Trump Administration about the threat of COVID-19 and how those warnings were ignored by the Trump Aministration:

According to The Washington Post, ‘U.S. intelligence agencies were issuing ominous, classified warnings in January and February about the global danger of the coronavirus while President Trump and lawmakers played down the threat and failed to take action that might have slowed the spread of the pathogen.’ Almost a year before that, an annual threat report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence by Dan Coats, then its director, stated, ‘The United States will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support.’ Coats stepped down last year after he was reported to have angered the president with unwelcome intelligence assessments.

“The 2020 report, which was supposed to have been released in February, remains mysteriously classified.”

The Guardian article compares the US and South Korean response to the virus:

“When the definitive history of the coronavirus pandemic is written, the date 20 January 2020 is certain to feature prominently. It was on that day that a 35-year-old man in Washington state, recently returned from visiting family in Wuhan in China, became the first person in the US to be diagnosed with the virus.

“On the very same day, 5,000 miles away in Asia, the first confirmed case of Covid-19 was reported in South Korea. The confluence was striking, but there the similarities ended.

“In the two months since that fateful day, the responses to coronavirus displayed by the US and South Korea have been polar opposites.

“One country acted swiftly and aggressively to detect and isolate the virus, and by doing so has largely contained the crisis. The other country dithered and procrastinated, became mired in chaos and confusion, was distracted by the individual whims of its leader, and is now confronted by a health emergency of daunting proportions.”

The article then goes on to point out that the US government did not even take the testing process seriously until 29 Fenruary:

“Those missing four to six weeks are likely to go down in the definitive history as a cautionary tale of the potentially devastating consequences of failed political leadership. Today, 86,012 cases have been confirmed across the US, pushing the nation to the top of the world’s coronavirus league table – above even China.

“More than a quarter of those cases are in New York City, now a global center of the coronavirus pandemic, with New Orleans also raising alarm. Nationally, 1,301 people have died.

“Most worryingly, the curve of cases continues to rise precipitously, with no sign of the plateau that has spared South Korea.

“’The US response will be studied for generations as a textbook example of a disastrous, failed effort,’ Ron Klain, who spearheaded the fight against Ebola in 2014, told a Georgetown university panel recently. ‘What’s happened in Washington has been a fiasco of incredible proportions.’”

The article goes on:

“Jeremy Konyndyk, who led the US government’s response to international disasters at USAid from 2013 to 2017, frames the past six weeks in strikingly similar terms. He told the Guardian: ‘We are witnessing in the United States one of the greatest failures of basic governance and basic leadership in modern times.’

“In Konyndyk’s analysis, the White House had all the information it needed by the end of January to act decisively. Instead, Trump repeatedly played down the severity of the threat, blaming China for what he called the ‘Chinese virus‘ and insisting falsely that his partial travel bans on China and Europe were all it would take to contain the crisis.”

It is instructive to note that other countries have been remarkably effective in keeping the death rate from COVID-19 down. National Public Radio cites Germany, another liberal democracy, that faced the same issues that the US did, but with completely different outcomes: “In Italy, the fatality rate from the virus is around 10%; in France, 5%. But in Germany, only a tiny fraction of people with the virus have died – just 0.5%.” There are many resons why Germany has been more successful than other states, but the principal difference seems to be the willingness of the state to embrace testing of everyone–not just those who were sick–in order to enforce social distancing. The New York Times echoes the singular importance of testing:

“But as the deadly virus from China spread with ferocity across the United States between late January and early March, large-scale testing of people who might have been infected did not happen — because of technical flaws, regulatory hurdles, business-as-usual bureaucracies and lack of leadership at multiple levels, according to interviews with more than 50 current and former public health officials, administration officials, senior scientists and company executives.

“The result was a lost month, when the world’s richest country — armed with some of the most highly trained scientists and infectious disease specialists — squandered its best chance of containing the virus’s spread. Instead, Americans were left largely blind to the scale of a looming public health catastrophe.”

Snopes did a fact check of all the times US President Trump seemed to downplay the significance of the virus. The list is quite long, so I will not reproduce it here, but Snopes carefully documents every source of the remarks. The failure of the US to respond effectively to the crisis will be studied in great detail after the crisis is over. But one point should be crystal-clear: effective governance can make a huge difference in protecting the well-being of citizens.

Posted March 28, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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