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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 8/6/20

How Trump Managed to Lead the World with the Worst Response to the COVID Pandemic

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Six months ago, on January 30, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, announced a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). Ten days before this, the Chinese government had said -- to great alarm -- that the coronavirus could be transmitted from human to human. The contagiousness of this virus led the WHO to make the declaration, which came a month after the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention told their counterparts in the United States about the virus. On the day that the WHO declared the PHEIC, Trump gave a press conference, where he bewilderingly said, "We think we have it very well under control." From January 30 onward, the Trump administration's response to the virus was incoherent and outrageously incompetent.

On July 31, the WHO's International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee met and the following day asked governments to continue with and even increase their work of educating their populations to be vigilant with the basic WHO rules (to wear masks, to keep hands clean); the WHO also asked governments to "continue to enhance capacity for public health surveillance, testing, and contact tracing." These recommendations when they were first issued on January 29, and since they were updated on June 5, had been immediately followed by the governments of Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Venezuela, New Zealand, South Korea, and the Indian state of Kerala. But they were forcefully ignored by countries such as Brazil, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Surprised

On July 30, the executive director of the WHO's Health Emergencies Program, Dr. Mike Ryan, told a press conference that he was "certainly surprised" by the "slowness in general of systems to react on things like contact tracing, cluster investigation, testing, [and] being able to bring a comprehensive public health strategy to bear." The WHO, he said, spent the first months after January offering technical and operational assistance to countries "that we would traditionally feel need that assistance." This was a mistake. In many countries that they assumed would handle the pandemic effectively, such as the United States of America and the United Kingdom, the entire system failed.

"I think we're all learning lessons; that there's been a deep underinvestment in the public health architecture," Dr. Ryan said. This is a UN official being polite; it seems that he would like to simply say that in countries like the United States, the government utterly failed the public.

There are more than 18 million active cases in the world, with more than 4.8 million of them in the United States of America. The U.S. has about 59,000 to 66,000 cases per daya catastrophically high number, especially when you compare it to Laos and Vietnam, which have almost no new cases and which have few fatalities (Laos has none; Vietnam has had six). How does one understand the total failure of the Trump administration to break the chain of the infection?

Austerity

From 2010 to 2019, the budget for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was cut by 10 percent. In February, after the PHEIC had been declared, the Trump administration proposed a funding cut to the Department of Health and Human Services of $9.5 billion, which included a 15 percent cut to the CDC ($1.2 billion) and a sharp decrease in the contribution to the Infectious Diseases Rapid Response Reserve Fund. In March, Trump's budget team defended these cuts.

Not only has the U.S. government cut the public health budgets for the CDC and other federal agencies, but it has also made sure to slice the funds for state and local public health officials. In 2009, a report by Trust for America's Health found that there "has been a shortfall of $20 billion annually -- across state, local, and federal government -- in funding for critical U.S. public health programs." A more recent study -- by the Trust for America's Health found that public health funding for local governments fell from "about $1 billion after 9/11 to under $650 million" in 2019. A superb Associated Press investigation found that "nearly two-thirds of Americans live in counties that spend more than twice as much on policing as non-hospital health care, which includes public health."

Between 2008 and 2017, as a consequence of the austerity, state and local health departments had to lay off 55,000 people -- one in five health workers. In 2008, the Association of Schools of Public Health reported that by 2020 "the nation will be facing a shortfall of more than 250,000 public health workers." Nothing was done to heed this warning.

Tests

In March, Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner was tasked with forming a committee to manage the pandemic. On the committee were cronies of Kushner, including his former college roommate, supposedly the "A-team of people who get sh*t done"; absent from the committee were leaders of key departments in the U.S. government, including Admiral Brett Giroir who had been appointed on March 12 to coordinate COVID-19 diagnostic testing (he left the position in June).

Despite the cronyism of the committee, it is said to have produced a plan that included setting up "a system of national oversight and coordination to surge supplies, allocate test kits, lift regulatory and contractual roadblocks, and establish a widespread virus surveillance system." The national testing plan, it was said, would be announced by President Trump in early April. It was not.

Instead, Trump continued to brag about his administration's response, which was essentially nil. On April 27, Trump was joined at the White House by the CEOs of Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp, who both bragged that their firms would be able to handle the testing. Steve Rusckowski of Quest Diagnostics said in Trump-style, "we've made tremendous progress." They were then doing 50,000 tests a day; they are currently doing about 150,000 tests a day.

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Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar (more...)
 

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