Denial, Defunding, Downplaying — First COVID-19 Leadership Failures

“Decades of climate denial now appear to have paved the way for denial of Covid-19 by many on the right, according to experts on climate politics.” — Inside Climate News.

“The Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus… and this is their new hoax.” — Donald Trump.

“Just left the Administration briefing on Coronavirus. Bottom line: they aren’t taking this seriously enough. Notably, no request for ANY emergency funding, which is a big mistake. Local health systems need supplies, training, screening staff etc. And they need it now.” — Democratic Senator Chris Murphy

“Now, I want to tell you the truth about the coronavirus … Yeah, I’m dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.” — Rush Limbaugh

“It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” — Donald Trump

“President Donald Trump has repeatedly undermined science-based policy as well as research that protects public health.” — the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative.

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In the ancient story, the prophet goes to confront the king. The prophet says — the Babylonians are coming, we must prepare, we must try to save our people. And the king says — I don’t believe it.

This is tragic. But it is also a dramatic failure of leadership and of a leader’s basic responsibility to protect those she or he serves. Because the point where disaster becomes inevitable is not when news of danger arrives. The point where disaster becomes inevitable, in the face of great danger, is when leadership sabotages itself and everything that relies on it. In the ancient story, the king’s denial is the death-knell for his civilization.

Science Denial As Climate Crisis Enabler

In America, we’ve done our best to remove ourselves from the curse of kings and their blind, cowardly, selfish pride that can hurt so many. But we are not immune to it. Far from it, with the political right now enamored with a novel authoritarianism, we are intensely vulnerable at this moment in history.

It is a vulnerability that we have seen play out again and again in the context of the climate crisis. With Inhoffe’s snowball in Congress, with Trump calling climate change a Chinese hoax during the 2016 election, with the thousands of false climate messages sent out by organizations like the Heartland Institute, with the ongoing attacks on climate scientists coming from platforms like Fox News, right-wing talk radio, and social media.

Even worse, we’ve seen this vulnerability of playing to unfettered and corrupt authority mutate into the climate crisis denial policies — huge subsidies for fossil fuels, erosion or removal of pollution controls, removing clean vehicle standards, hobbling or delaying clean energy systems like wind, solar, and EVs, smearing helpful policies like the Green New Deal, misinforming the public on the efficacy of climate solutions, attacking IPCC findings even while working to water down IPCC messaging, and attacking helpful global climate policies like Paris from every angle imaginable. In this way, a politics of denial becomes a platform both for harmful policy and for harmful behavior.

Anti-Science Denial Becomes Bludgeon 

A new vulnerability emerged with COVID-19. A kind of right wing systemic weakness resulting from years of failure to listen to experts and to support the institutions that protect both those of us in the U.S. and people around the world from the ravages of a wave of emerging and re-emerging infectious illness. This vulnerability became visible as China was grappling with a monstrous outbreak during December of 2019 and January of 2020. It became still more apparent during February as COVID-19 threatened to go global, to strike deeply into the U.S. population as well. And by March the various failures of the Trump Administration would result in the U.S. suffering the worst of any nation from COVID-19’s global first wave.

But the failures of leadership that paved the way for COVID-19 to rapidly expand began months and years before. It began with anti-science and anti-public-health Trump-lackey-type Republicans taking control of the executive branch of the United States.

Sabotaging Global and US Pandemic Preparedness

The story of the Trump Administration’s erosion and removal of key U.S. and global protections in the time before the Coronavirus outbreak is extensive. We will touch on some of its highlights here. In short, the removal of protections was deep, it was systemic, and it arose from both the Administration and its supporters’ operating ideology which included actively eroding national and global institutions. It also centered on Trump himself — who seemed unwilling to listen to even his own followers, taking any seeming or perceived contradiction as an insult. Moreover, presented with facts, Trump has repeatedly seemed to consider them an affront to him personally. In this case, Trump and his loyal and unquestioning followers targeted the very institutions aimed at keeping our populations well.

2018 was the first fiscal year budget request by the Trump Administration. This graph by Kaiser is one indicator of how much Global Health was de-prioritized in the transition from Obama to Trump. Image source: Kaiser.

According to reports from Foreign Policy, in 2018 the Trump Administration fired the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command. This included the management infrastructure for pandemics within the White House. An observation that has been broadly validated.

In 2018, the Trump Administration also sought deep cuts in a program called the Global Health Security Agenda (GSHA). The program was aimed at shoring up other countries ability to detect pathogens. The GHSA aimed to set up a global early warning system for new outbreaks of infectious diseases.

In July of 2019, the Trump Administration told an infectious disease expert then in China whose job it was to assist Chinese disease response and to facilitate information sharing between the U.S. and China during a disease outbreak that her job was defunded. This caused her to leave her post. Overall, the Trump Administration dramatically reduced disease response capability in China. According to The Guardian, 11 CDC staffers charged with disease response were cut to three people, while 39 workers who supported them were reduced to 11 people.

In addition, Trump Admin budget requests have asked for a reduction in CDC funding by 15-20 percent for each of the past years. Coordinately, Trump’s attempts to defund the Affordable Care Act would have reduced CDC funding by a further 8 percent. Congress (primarily due to the efforts of Democrats) ultimately restored funding removed in Trump’s budgets. So these cuts did not fully occur. That said, the attempted cuts show the Trump Administration’s preference for disease preparedness erosion. In the end, Trump leadership was still corrosive to the CDC. According to a report provided by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative:

“President Donald Trump has repeatedly undermined science-based policy as well as research that protects public health. That undermining has eroded our government’s capacity to respond to the coronavirus — from the White House itself to the labs and offices of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the federal government’s lead agency for science-based public health. The Trump administration’s widely-reported disbanding of the National Security Council’s directorate charged with global health has, according to many experts, hobbled the United States’ efforts against this pandemic.”

It was a hobbling that not only made the U.S. less prepared, it also set the global field — allowing any new epidemic outbreak to proceed undetected longer, to expand more rapidly into epidemics due to lack of disease response personnel, it disrupted global communications on the issue of illness, and it cost us dearly in both needed response time and lives of those who would not have been infected otherwise.

Ignoring the Severity of the Threat and Confusing the Public

The Trump Administration’s adversarial relationship with the front line soldiers in the global war on infectious disease early-on quickly morphed to a brazen denial of both the threat posed by the disease itself and the need for a strong response once it did emerge.

The timeline for these initial response failures — both a failure to take the threat of the virus seriously and communicate that seriousness to the public and the failure to provide adequate testing (next two chapters), contacts tracing, containment and isolation early on — occurred during January, February, and early to mid-March of 2020 as the disease first mostly ravaged China, then appeared overseas at first in large numbers in places like South Korea (high case numbers were, in part, due to an aggressive testing regime resulting in a clearer outbreak picture there) and then Iran with small numbers of cases elsewhere. By the end of February, it was clear that Italy was seeing uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 as well (with around 2,000 reported cases at the time). And by early-to-mid March it was apparent that both the US and large swaths of Europe were in the same boat.

Painting False Comparisons with Seasonal Flu and “Moving to Zero” in a Few Days — Trump’s Long March of Misstatement

Trump’s downplaying statements began in January and continued on through mid-March. On January 22nd, Trump stated to CNBC “We have it totally under control, It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” This initial major statement came notably late — weeks after first warnings (December 31) from China and WHO, and five days after CDC, in an almost unprecedented move, sent 100 disease screeners to U.S. airports. Trump’s statement was also apparently contradictory to CDC’s own statement on January 21st in which Dr. Nancy Messonnier noted “We do expect additional cases in the United States and globally.”

On January 23rd, CDC advisers reported to CNN that they were concerned that China hadn’t released enough basic epidemiological data about the virus. The next day, Trump apparently contradicts CDC again tweeting his praise for the Chinese government’s transparency and saying “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well…” By the next day, on January 25, there are 1,000 global confirmed cases of COVID-19. By the 26th of January, China reported that the disease can infect people and be contagious before displaying symptoms.

On January 30, 7 cases have been confirmed in the United States but the country is starting to show its woeful lack of testing capability (more on this later), the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency of international concern, the U.S. State Department issued a ‘do not travel’ warning for China. Trump states on the same day: “We think we have it very well under control. We have very little problem in this country at this moment — five — and those people are all recuperating successfully.” This under-counted the official number and stood in contradiction to WHO and U.S. State Department warnings. On January 31, Trump barred many travelers from China. The Administration will later hold up this single, disorganized, inadequate by itself, and too late in retrospect action, as a ‘strong response.’ According to the New York Times, more than 430,000 Chinese still made it to the U.S. despite Trump’s travel ban (40,000 of which arriving after the ban was instated). Trump would later try to turn the blame for the virus onto the Chinese people, in statements that many described as race-baiting and which were reported to have set off a wave of acts of violence against Asian people living in the U.S.

By February 6, the virus was rapidly spreading with 25,000 known cases worldwide. In the following days, Trump would show stunning, and unfounded, optimism stating on February 7 that China will be successful in fighting the virus “especially as the weather starts to warm & the virus hopefully becomes weaker, and then gone.” Infectious disease experts on the same day noted that there wasn’t yet any evidence that warmer weather would slow the virus. On February 10 and 12, Trump would repeat this unproven information stating: “looks like, by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” And “as I mentioned, by April or during the month of April, the heat, generally speaking, kills this kind of virus.”

Local counties, city and state governments, were often forced to contradict myths spread directly from Trump about COVID-19 as a matter of public health and a life-saving measure. Image source: McLean County Health Department.

By February 19, the WHO was now tracking more than 75,000 confirmed cases globally. By February 24, the White House was requesting 2.5 billion in emergency aid funding due to COVID-19. At this point, there were 51 confirmed cases in the U.S. But actual cases were probably far more extensive as U.S. testing capability remained well behind the infection curve. Trump’s statement on this day was also rosy despite a very grim global and U.S. picture starting to emerge: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!” It’s also at this point that Trump began his counter-productive increased obsession over the stock market. On February 25, CDC again showed how out of touch Trump was with reality on the ground by stating that it expected to see both community spread and thousands of deaths in the U.S.

By February 26, Trump seemed bound and determined to overwhelm the dutiful reporting of infectious disease experts with utter nonsense. He made an odd comparison between COVID-19 and the flu and then he claimed that U.S. cases would be down to zero in a couple of days. For the sake of accuracy, infectious disease experts estimated COVID-19 lethality to be 10-40 times worse than the seasonal flu (as of this writing the disease has killed more than 100,000 people globally, more than 18,000 in the U.S., is the leading cause of death today in the U.S., and has a present global case fatality rate of around 6 percent or 60 times worse than typical flu). It’s also worth noting that at a time when the official CDC case count was 58, Trump falsely claimed the number was 15. Trump’s full statement is worth reading as an example of how delusional the deniers of scientific fact can become and how damaging such delusion is to our lives: “I want you to understand something that shocked me when I saw it that — and I spoke with Dr. Fauci on this, and I was really amazed, and I think most people are amazed to hear it: The flu, in our country, kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year. That was shocking to me. And, so far, if you look at what we have with the 15 people and their recovery, one is — one is pretty sick but hopefully will recover, but the others are in great shape. But think of that: 25,000 to 69,000. … And again, when you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”

The next day, on February 27, there were 60 confirmed U.S. cases of COVID-19. Trump at this time was still living in the cloud of his self induced denial euphoria. His statement for the day was: “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” On February 29 the refrain for Trump continued at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland when he stated: “And we’ve done a great job… Everything is really under control.” Later it was confirmed that an attendee at the same conference tested positive for COVID-19. On the same day, health officials announced the first official COVID-19 death in the U.S. Later on the 29th, Trump would claim that: “we have far fewer cases of the disease then even countries with much less travel or a much smaller population.” Of course this statement would later be proven dramatically false as U.S. cases jumped to highest in the world on a numerical basis (as of this writing, U.S. cases are now rapidly closing in on half a million).

By early March, cases were notably surging in the U.S., but testing capability still lagged, so only the most severe or high profile infections were accounted for. Regardless, on March 4, 217 cases were confirmed in the U.S. On the same day, Trump was telling people: “Yeah, I think where these people are flying, it’s safe to fly. And large portions of the world are very safe to fly. So we don’t want to say anything other than that.” At this point such statements were directly risking life — it was like telling people to go to the beach in a category 5 hurricane. Conservative followers of Trump would make similar irresponsible statements risking harm to those who listened to them in the weeks and months to follow. It’s also worth noting that the coronavirus denial messages had extended to Trump’s flu comparison by this time as well. A poll conducted by Vox from mid-March found that 90 percent of Fox viewers felt it was safe to go out even as experts were increasingly recommending stay at home policies. But looking at this litany of Trump statements, it’s little wonder how many developed such a false sense of security.

To round out this account of live-action denial, on March 6 Trump began to downplay the lack of testing availability claiming: “Anybody that wants a test can get a test. … The tests are all perfect, like the letter was perfect, the transcription was perfect, right?” This as many Americans with symptoms were forced to wait in long lines only to be turned away when asking for a test. And by March 9, Trump is again making the false equivalency comparison with the seasonal flu: “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”

We’ll pick up the thread of Trump misstatement in a later chapter. For now, we will mercifully break from his ongoing and delusional screed to take a look at how the Administration failed so miserably to provide the much-needed test kits that could have helped to contain COVID-19 in the U.S. even as the disease rapidly spread. To look at what could have been and to try to learn from the successful responses of other nations.

(UPDATED to include more information on Trump’s China travel ban in late January.)

Up Next: Effective Containment — How South Korea’s First Coronavirus Wave was Halted

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