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The Pandemic and the American Mountain of Dead

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 30, 2020

For his piece The 3 Weeks That Changed Everything in The Atlantic, James Fallows talked to many scientists, health experts, and government officials about the US government’s response to the pandemic. In the article, he compares the pandemic response to how the government manages air safety and imagines what it would look like if we investigated the pandemic catastrophe like the National Transportation Safety Board investigates plane crashes.

Consider a thought experiment: What if the NTSB were brought in to look at the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic? What would its investigation conclude? I’ll jump to the answer before laying out the background: This was a journey straight into a mountainside, with countless missed opportunities to turn away. A system was in place to save lives and contain disaster. The people in charge of the system could not be bothered to avoid the doomed course.

And he continues:

What happened once the disease began spreading in this country was a federal disaster in its own right: Katrina on a national scale, Chernobyl minus the radiation. It involved the failure to test; the failure to trace; the shortage of equipment; the dismissal of masks; the silencing or sidelining of professional scientists; the stream of conflicting, misleading, callous, and recklessly ignorant statements by those who did speak on the national government’s behalf. As late as February 26, Donald Trump notoriously said of the infection rate, “You have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down close to zero.” What happened after that — when those 15 cases became 15,000, and then more than 2 million, en route to a total no one can foretell — will be a central part of the history of our times.

But he rightly pins much of the blame for the state we’re in on the Trump administration almost completely ignoring the plans put into place for a viral outbreak like this that were developed by past administrations, both Republican and Democratic alike.

In cases of disease outbreak, U.S. leadership and coordination of the international response was as well established and taken for granted as the role of air traffic controllers in directing flights through their sectors. Typically this would mean working with and through the World Health Organization — which, of course, Donald Trump has made a point of not doing. In the previous two decades of international public-health experience, starting with SARS and on through the rest of the acronym-heavy list, a standard procedure had emerged, and it had proved effective again and again. The U.S, with its combination of scientific and military-logistics might, would coordinate and support efforts by other countries. Subsequent stages would depend on the nature of the disease, but the fact that the U.S. would take the primary role was expected. When the new coronavirus threat suddenly materialized, American engagement was the signal all other participants were waiting for. But this time it did not come. It was as if air traffic controllers walked away from their stations and said, “The rest of you just work it out for yourselves.”

From the U.S. point of view, news of a virulent disease outbreak anywhere in the world is unwelcome. But in normal circumstances, its location in China would have been a plus. Whatever the ups and downs of political relations over the past two decades, Chinese and American scientists and public-health officials have worked together frequently, and positively, on health crises ranging from SARS during George W. Bush’s administration to the H1N1 and Ebola outbreaks during Barack Obama’s. As Peter Beinart extensively detailed in an Atlantic article, the U.S. helped build China’s public-health infrastructure, and China has cooperated in detecting and containing diseases within its borders and far afield. One U.S. official recalled the Predict program: “Getting Chinese agreement to American monitors throughout their territory — that was something.” But then the Trump administration zeroed out that program.

Americans, and indeed everyone in the world, should be absolutely furious about this, especially since the situation is actively getting worse after months (months!) of inactivity by the federal government.