CDC, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, coronavirus, Council on Foreign Relations, Im-Politic, impeachment, pandemic, public health, Senate, The New York Times, Think Global Health, Trump, WHO, World Health Organization
President Trump sure is getting slammed for his response to the coronavirus outbreak, both by the Mainstream Media, many Democratic Party politicians, and even some public health specialists. (See here and here.) Their main indictments: He’s been hopelessly behind the curve. Or has it been that he’s been too alarmist? Both charges have been made, making clear that the substance doesn’t matter much to the critics.
One allegation seems justified to me: The President’s latest (fiscal 2021) budget request included a 16 percent cut in outlays for the Centers for Disease Control, the branch of the Cabinet-level federal Department of Health and Human Services in charge of the nation’s health security. The budget document was made public eleven days after the World Health Organization declared the outbreak to be an international public health emergency, and six days after Mr. Trump promised in his State of the Union address to take “all necessary steps” to protect Americans from the disease.
But the main problem with the CDC decision, as I see it, is political. Clearly, the timing was terrible, and was bound to be jumped on by reasonable and unreasonable critics alike. Indeed, all of the President’s budget requests have sought such cuts – which also deserves criticism even though Mr. Trump eventually accepted higher funding in the final budget deals each time.
Substantively, however, it’s inconceivable that had any of the sought cuts been actually made, they would have made a discernible difference in the nation’s early-stage anti-coronavirus efforts at least. After all, how could even more money have enabled the agency to predict or identify the virus once it broke out, since it cught China itself by surprise; and since Beijing still refusedsto let U.S. officials as such into the country to aid its own efforts?
It’s true that last year, the Trump administration ended a program in the U.S. government’s foreign aid agency aimed precisely at improving the detection of corona-type viruses “with pandemic potential.” According to ABC News, the program (called PREDICT) “is credited with identifying nearly a thousand” of these maladies since its creation in 2009. Which sounds great. Except the coronavirus clearly wasn’t one of them.
But as for being slow on the coronavirus uptake (a line of attack that’s – understandably – shown more staying power than the “overreaction” claims), timelines showing milestones in the virus’ identification and spread, and principal Trump administration responses demonstrate nothing of the kind. (My main sources are the Think Global Health initiative of the Council on Foreign Relations, a leading U.S. think tank; and The New York Times.)
They remind us that the first recorded onset of symptoms, in Wuhan, China, came on December 1, that Chinese authorities first told the World Health Organization (WHO) that something was rotten in that city on December, 31, and that Beijing took its own first anti-virus action the following day – closing a seafood market thought to have been the the origin point.
On January 21, the United States confirmed finding the first domestic American case of the virus – in a man who had traveled to Wuhan. By this time, China had reported six virus-related deaths, and several hundred cases.
A day later, WHO convened its first coronavirus meeting, and ultimately decided against declaring the outbreak to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. On January 23 came the first Chinese travel restrictions and quarantines.
Between January 24 and 26, Washington identified four more American cases, and on the 27th, by which time 3,000 victims around the world had contracted the disease and 60 had died, announced screening programs at domestic airports that handled 90 percent of passengers coming from China along with CDC initiatives “to identify potential cases.” In addition, a high level State Department travel advisory had been announced for Wuhan, and President Trump had spoken with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and offered assistance.
On January 28 and 29, the United States began evacuating its nationals from Wuhan – dates which are significant because it wasn’t until the following day that WHO finally decided to declare the virus an official public health emergency. On the 31st, as The New York Times reported, the administration announced that it “would bar entry by most foreign nationals who had recently visited China and put some American travelers under a quarantine as it declared a rare public health emergency.” At the time, worldwide deaths totaled 213 and cases approached 9,800 (eleven in the United States). Also significant – these actions came a day before the first coronavirus death outside China was reported (in the Philippines).
Official U.S. actions by no means stopped then. On February 5, all Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated from China and the CDC starting sending diagnostic kits to more than one hundred laboratories in the United States. (The Food & Drug Administration authorized the tests to be conducted by the kits the day before.) Two days later, on the seventh, the administration pledged $100 million to the global coronavirus fight.
The last week of January, incidentally, was kind of interesting for another reason: President Trump was being tried in the Senate on two articles of impeachment – which themselves represented the culmination of what I’m sure we’ll all agree was a great deal of work by Democrats in the House and Senate, as well as voluminous reporting by the national media. The journalism of course, included the publication of scoops of any number of supposed bombshell revelations about the President’s misdeeds, and even though acquittal seemed certain to most, they clearly sent the President and his top aides scrambling on an ongoing basis and surely occupied a great deal of their time.
Moreover, the trial didn’t end (with the acquittal vote) until February 5 – the date that the Peace Corps volunteers were being evacuated and the CDC diagnostic kits were being issued.
I fully accept that Presidents need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, and that indeed, the ability to manage crises successfully, and during the worst of circumstances, is the most important qualification for the job. It’s also possible that the administration has already lost crucial time in the anti-coronavirus fight, and that consequently it will never catch up.
But the above timelines reveal to me, anyway, that the American record so far measures up well versus that of any other national government, and especially well versus that of WHO, which is supposed to be the tip of the spear here. Moreover, the Trump administration response seems all the more alert upon remembering that, as the virus was breaking out, the President was, if not literally fighting for his own life, relentlessly besieged by adversaries both inside and outside his government. I suspect that posterity, as a result, will need to struggle to judge his initial coronavirus policy decisions as failures.