Updated: Sep 18
By Niva Cohen
The reason that people invest in insurance is to have guaranteed protection in times of need. The government is a type of insurance: citizens pay taxes in return for their safety. When those in power neglect their responsibilities and are not prepared for disasters, they fail the people and fall short of their obligations. So is the case with the Trump Administration in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Not only should President Trump have acted differently in the face of the virus, but he should have prepared better before it reached American shores.
The Administration first shirked its duties two years ago by firing those who would have responded immediately to the pandemic. In April 2018, the then national security advisor John Bolton dismissed the White House National Security Council’s Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense. Since past President Obama created this department in the wake of Ebola, it was designed to forecast and fight sickness. Bolton then fired Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert, who, according to the Washington Post, was planning “for a comprehensive biodefense strategy against pandemic and biological attacks.” Trump even planned to reduce funding for the CDC in the 2021 budget so that he could repurpose the money. This sent a message to all of Washington and America that public health was not a priority. Instead of focusing on the benefit of investing in preparation, Trump’s administration made cuts that were reckless and short-sighted.
Even if this shrinking of leadership is consistent with a conservative political perspective, preparing for disasters is one of the government functions with which everyone agrees. Trump argues that cutting certain departments was unproblematic since he could “get them back very quickly” when necessary, but that defeats the purpose. During crises, countries cannot afford to work with a “trial and error method” because mistakes cost lives and a proper response requires resources and planning. Assembling a team to deal with pandemics after one has already hit is like recruiting firemen when a building goes ablaze: too little too late, and unfair to those inside.
Even once everyone knew of the coronavirus, and experts -- including Trump’s experts -- cautioned people against gathering, Trump continued to downplay its threats. He repeatedly compared it to the common flu and labeled it a hoax, insisting that officials were exaggerating the death rate. This rhetoric confused people, as they did not know whose advice to follow or how seriously to take mandated social distancing. When he should have been grave and solemn, the President was flippant. In the past, Trump has used underestimating crises as a political tool (Hurricane Maria, for example) and as a form of propaganda. This time his mischaracterization has broader consequences than infuriating the left; it has risked people’s health by giving them a justification to ignore expertise.
Yet another arena in which Trump and his administration have failed is testing for the virus. Testing is crucial to fighting disease; it quarantines the sick before they transmit the virus and it allows the government to notify those who have been in contact with infected individuals. South Korea tested 60,000 people in the first week of exposure to the coronavirus, but the U.S. did not reach that number for three weeks, at which point it made only a small dent because of the sheer size of the American population. It is not as though the American structure of government is incompatible with mass production of tests, as tests were abundant during the Zika crisis. Therefore, the current Administration clearly misstepped. But Trump refuses to admit any wrongdoing.
Among the President’s critics, doubts have arisen about whether the lack of testing is due to something other than negligent unpreparedness. Politico’s Dan Diamond says that Trump may not want a wide distribution of tests because “more testing might have led to more cases being discovered of coronavirus outbreak, and… the lower the numbers on coronavirus, the better for the President.” This theory is not unsupported. In March, 21 passengers and crew members aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship tested positive for the coronavirus, but Trump did not want them to leave the ship. His rationale is that he did not want his “numbers [to] double because of one ship that wasn’t [his] fault.” The President’s priorities seem to be more to look after his political image than to look after the American people.
By the time the Trump administration built a group of experts for the coronavirus, it was already playing catch-up. The pandemic may have been a surprise, but the role of the government is to predict these surprises, to take proactive measures, and to arm the people with the tools they need when disaster strikes. Leading is not only the flashy signing of bills, shaking of hands, or bumping of elbows; it is the background tedium that no one sees and for which no one offers congratulations. But this background tedium can save lives, and without it, government is nothing more than an exercise in optics.