It’s incredibly easy to blame President Trump for the coronavirus hell we’re all living in. The president doesn’t help himself when he babbles for an hour and a half every single day behind the White House podium, about how smooth the federal government’s disaster management response has been, how superior his leadership.
But the truth is much more complicated, troubling, and systemic. America wasn’t prepared — and there is plenty of blame to go around.
How the hell could the most powerful country in the world be so short-staffed in its hospitals? How could doctors and nurses throughout America be so desperate for basic medical equipment — to the point where the Centers for Disease Control put out a public release okaying the use of bandanas and scarves in the event they ran out of N-95 or surgical masks.
The federal government’s response to coronavirus has been one, long, giant disaster that makes George W. Bush’s management of Hurricane Katrina 15 years ago look like a case study in expert efficiency. Trump is only one, loud-mouthed cog in a system dominated by hubristic personalities, low funding, and bureaucratic inertia.
Take the CDC. Responsible for alerting the National Security Council to a potentially deadly pathogen that could strike the heart of the United States, the organization is one of the federal government’s most important players when an epidemic or disease hits the land. CDC officials understood the gravity of the coronavirus relatively early, particularly as the agency observed the Chinese government’s extreme mitigation efforts in the city of Wuhan. But despite the early warnings, there was an institutional bias in the CDC against ceding power to the health labs in the private sector that could help develop testing kits. The CDC arrogantly convinced itself that it could control the testing and thus dismissed entreaties from private universities and researchers. The result: the release of a diagnostic testing kit that was inaccurate. Private labs were finally approved to develop their own alternatives a day after the disease claimed its first American.
Or take the bureaucratic machinery. On Sunday morning, AP reported that the administration essentially sat on its hands and allowed the Strategic National Stockpile to deplete. The first confirmed case of the coronavirus on US soil occurred on January 21. Yet the federal government didn’t bulk order the masks, ventilators, gloves, and gowns America’s health care professionals needed until mid-March. By that time, the virus was already spreading across the country—effectively shutting turning New York City from a vibrant, bustling metropolis into a ghost town—and doctors and nurses were rationing ventilators and sowing their own masks at home.
Congress doesn’t get a free pass either. Compared to other contingencies that could afflict the United States, including terrorism, natural disasters, or a biological attack, lawmakers have treated public health preparedness as a second or third-tier priority. The Public Health Emergency Preparedness program, designed to (you guessed it) prepare the country for a public health emergency like the massive spread of a disease, has been losing money year-after-year. In 2003, the program was close to a billion dollars; this year, it was down to $675 million. Funding for the Strategic National Stockpile has alternated in the $600-$700 million range despite the fact that the agency in charge of the inventory says a billion dollars is required.
Congress is great as responding to a crisis once it kills a lot of Americans and leaves behind a lot of angry voters. But it proved itself uninterested preparing for the crisis or giving public health agencies the money they required to prevent it (or at least help contain it) in the first place.
You can point the finger at Trump all you want. But focusing on one individual allows every other arm of the federal government off the hook. There is a rot in the system that has calcified over multiple administrations and congresses under both parties. Accountability for the travesty the country is experiencing at the moment goes far beyond the 45th president.