By Neil Baron* – Newsweek
As Dr. Anthony Fauci has said, it didn’t have to be this bad in the U.S. The world’s richest country with the strongest economy and a population of 330 million people has more coronavirus cases and deaths from COVID-19 than any other country, including China, whose population is more than four times larger.
The U.S. accounts for just 4.2 percent of the world’s population but 30 percent of COVID-19 cases and 19 percent of COVID-19 deaths. In 12 other countries, the virus’s spread has slowed. China is returning to work while the U.S. remains shut down.
The U.S would have experienced fewer deaths and less economic damage had the federal government been better prepared—or simply as prepared as some other countries, even smaller and poorer ones.
For example, South Korea’s performance put the U.S. to shame. In January, South Korea had only four cases, but it quickly approved several diagnostic tests. By mid-February, it had tested one in 170 people, while the U.S. tested one in 1,090. By the end of February, thousands of South Koreans got drive-through screenings daily. New cases slowed starting March 1. Around then, the U.S. tested a hundred a day when other countries tested tens of thousands.
While China provided thousands of virus-fighting supplies to countries on three continents, including all 54 African nations, the U.S. was so short it had to ask other countries for help. Publicly, Trump boasted, “We have so many companies making so many products” and “We have millions of masks being done. We have respirators. We have ventilators.” Privately, he called South Korean President Moon Jae-in for supplies, though the call doesn’t appear in the White House call readout.
U.S. ambassadors were instructed to ask host countries to “ramp up production of medical equipment” for American use. Germany accused the U.S. of “piracy” for confiscating a shipment of 200,000 N95 masks at a Thai airport and diverting it from Germany to the U.S. France complained about the U.S. starting bidding wars for supplies where it wielded the most financial clout.
Many U.S. deaths—now over 28,000—and much economic damage could have been avoided if Trump hadn’t crippled U.S. biodefense capabilities. Obama officials said they presented incoming Trump officials with a pandemic simulation, but Trump’s team ignored it, “convinced they knew more than the outgoing administration.”
Trump also ignored multiple warnings that cutting pandemic defense would expose Americans to the “significant probability of a large and lethal modern-day pandemic,” that that U.S. capacity wasn’t “sufficient to fight many types of infectious disease outbreaks,” and that unless he invested more in biodefense now, we’d pay much more in “human and economic costs” later.
Undeterred, Trump’s fiscal year 2019 White House budget proposal cut funding for the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and a $30 million emergency response fund.
Trump fired Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert, who advocated strengthening our pandemic defenses. Trump’s National Security Council adviser disbanded our entire pandemic response team and never replaced it. When the World Health Organization (WHO) urged global testing and sent test kits to 120 countries, the CDC failed to request any.
The results were catastrophic. Large-scale testing needed to identify hot spots and implement early quarantines never materialized. The U.S. suffered acute shortages of test kits, and many of the kits the CDC did produce were unusable. The CDC briefly posted 472 test results on its website, then removed the figure because it paled in comparison to other countries.
Ventilators and the drugs needed to use them, as well as nasal swabs for testing, are running out. Protective equipment is so scarce, health care professionals have to wash and reuse masks. States compete against one another and the Federal Emergency Management Agency for supplies, bidding up prices, because the federal government failed to centralize procurement and distribution.
In 2009, H1N1 influenza triggered the largest federal distribution ever, sending respirators, protective masks, gowns and gloves to the states. Yet Trump told governors that the federal government is “not a shipping clerk” and that states should procure their own supplies. That’s an unconscionable abdication of responsibility. The Defense Production Act authorizes the president to force production and distribution of materials needed in a crisis precisely because it’s a federal responsibility.
For over seven decades, the U.S. played a leading global role in fighting infectious diseases, including Ebola, tuberculosis, malaria, yellow fever, AIDS, avian influenza and Zika, as well as in developing the 67-member Global Health Security Agenda. Trump disgracefully abandoned that leadership role.
He failed to learn from President Barack Obama’s success in coordinating world leaders to stop the Ebola virus at its source. Obama sent more than 3,000 health officials to West Africa as part of a 10,000 worker team that provided treatment units, hospital beds, medical equipment, contact tracing, health care training, burial units and travel restrictions. Cases fell by 80 percent from peak levels.
The Obama administration also led the fight against Ebola at home. He prepared state hospitals, treatment centers, health departments and health care workers to combat a possible outbreak. In total, just 11 cases and two deaths reported in the US.
Having failed to control the massive spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump turned to massive misinformation and scapegoating. He’s attempted to shift blame to Obama, governors, Democrats, the media and, most bizarrely, the WHO, whose funding he recently suspended.
He predicted the mortality rate “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero,” that it would “disappear like a miracle,” and claimed that “we’re very close to a vaccine,” which Fauci and the WHO said would take a year to 18 months at best. Trump assured the public he had COVID-19 “totally under control,” that everybody “infected is getting better,” and suggested the common flu was worse.
Such misdirection and false statements have led more Americans to eschew caution and subject themselves to more infection and death. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said her city would have canceled Mardi Gras if Washington had taken the outbreak more seriously and sent clearer signals. Orleans Parish now has the highest per capita death rate of any U.S. county.
A letter from 100 professors from Northwestern University, UC Berkeley and Columbia University complained, “The misinformation that reaches the Fox News audience is a danger to public health.” Fox is getting sued for interfering with reasonable efforts to contain the virus by broadcasting false and deceptive content.
The definition of involuntary or negligent manslaughter encompasses unintended killing through negligence, as well as knowledge that one’s actions pose a risk to life. Irresponsible actions or failure to perform a duty can constitute the crime. Do Trump’s actions and omissions rise to that level? Ask the families of the 28,000 Americans and counting who have died.
*Neil Baron is an attorney who has represented many institutions involved in the international markets and advised various parts of the federal government on economic issues. The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.