It is clear the United States is going to suffer a full-blown epidemic of novel coronavirus, and quite possibly a financial crisis and recession as a result. The disease is spreading fast in multiple states, and the government’s response has fallen far short of the efforts even in much smaller countries like the U.K. or South Korea.
It would have been quite difficult to stop this from happening — but not impossible. President Trump is responsible for the agencies in charge of disease control in this country, and he has utterly botched it.
To contain a viral outbreak, speed and precision are very important. When any new disease appears, there are of course only a few cases. Identifying, isolating, and treating infected people can halt the disease before it gets out into the wild and starts spreading on its own — but on the other hand, even a single infected person out in public can cause dozens of new cases, so authorities must also be ready to identify anyone who gets through the quarantine net and track anyone they contacted, as fast as possible.
Vietnam managed to contain its coronavirus outbreaks with exactly these tactics, despite bordering China, where the virus originated. As soon as the first handful of cases were reported, the Vietnamese authorities declared an epidemic emergency. They quarantined all the infected cases, rigorously tracked anyone who had come in contact with them, and started mass testing travelers and citizens. In affected areas, schools were shut down, and whole cities were placed on temporary lockdown. Planes and classrooms were regularly disinfected. The government even produced a snappy pop song about avoiding contamination.
It worked — by late February Vietnam had kept its cases to just 16, and no further spread was noted. Of course, they are not remotely out of the woods yet, given how the disease is spreading elsewhere. One single person who was traveling in Europe and didn’t tell border officials apparently re-introduced the virus to Vietnam recently, and clampdown measures are back in effect.
At any rate, by December at the latest it was clear that there was a major danger that novel coronavirus was going to get out of China. Sensible countries by this point started mass-producing testing kits, instructing border officials to take hygiene precautions and prepare to test travelers coming from affected countries, educating the public about ways to avoid infecting themselves and others, securing stockpiles of key medical supplies, readying the medical system to quarantine infected people, and setting up contact-tracking systems.
In the United States, the president is the only person who could have set this process in motion. But Trump did nothing. He had spent the previous several years hacking away at the government’s pandemic response capacity, including firing “the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command, including the White House management infrastructure,” but he did not reverse those cuts. Nor did he provide any pre-emptive funding to cash-strapped public health departments across the country who would be the first line of defense. Nor did he instruct the Centers for Disease Control or border officials to start gearing up in a serious way. Nor did he try to arrange health coverage for anyone caught in quarantine, which he could do via executive order.
Instead, he mostly did the only things Trump knows how to do: angrily blame Democrats and the media, lie about what was happening, and live-tweet Fox News. The fragments of the CDC that still exist were caught flat-footed and did not have even close to enough testing capacity — which explains why there have been so few confirmed cases but so many deaths. A nurse under quarantine reported Kafkaesque dysfunction at the agency last week. Federal health workers were sent to deal with infected patients without proper equipment or training, possibly spreading the virus, according to a whistleblower.
About the only thing the administration did do was belatedly close off travel from China and other countries — but by then it was far too late, with the virus already spreading in Washington and elsewhere. There was even reportedly a live case at the recent CPAC conference, which Trump attended.
Overall, the U.S. response looks much more like Iran’s than it does Vietnam. It has fallen to states and city governments to carry out responses of their own in piecemeal fashion. Washington state has reportedly finally brought a big bunch of new testing capacity online — which will surely cause diagnosed case numbers to skyrocket. New York is following in its footsteps.
To be sure, the United States has severe defects that make it unusually vulnerable to a pandemic. Our lousy health-care system leaves tens of millions uninsured — meaning a trip to the doctor risks bankruptcy for them. We also have no national sick leave, so many will probably go to work sick and infect others because they simply cannot afford to take time off.
On the other hand, novel coronavirus is far from the most contagious virus in history. Unlike measles, it cannot spread simply through the air — it requires droplets. The U.S. should have been able to stop the disease before it got out, in which case the crumbling health care system and lack of paid leave would have been irrelevant.
Furthermore, the U.S. has greater ability to coordinate an international response than any other country. Vietnam could not round up all the major countries of the world and pressure them to adopt best practices, much less drop billions of dollars helping those that might struggle to do so — but America could. Indeed, President Obama did exactly this with the response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014, with great success. Nobody else has stepped into that leadership role, either; Trump’s fecklessness may be part of the reason the outbreak has gotten so bad in poorer-governed European countries like Italy.
Donald Trump is the most incompetent president in history. For three years America dodged any major catastrophes because of it by pure luck (except for Puerto Rico). But today our number is up.