Words are inadequate to express my disappointment in the federal government’s response to this coronavirus pandemic. While many governors are stepping in to fill the void left by the lack of federal leadership, that is just not good enough. It doesn’t really matter if North Carolina does a great job of managing this crisis if Oklahoma doesn’t. States are not islands and viruses don’t recognize state lines. This crisis is begging for a federally coordinated response.
The first mistake was in 2018 when Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, a member of the National Security Council and head of the global health security team responsible for preparing us for pandemic responses was fired and his team disbanded. He was not replaced. When asked about this on March 13, the president complained that it was a “nasty question” and claimed he didn’t do it and didn’t know anything about it. Really? Has no one on his staff mentioned it to him? How is it possible that I know about it and he doesn’t?
The second mistake was to spend two months downplaying the threat – from denying its existence, to blaming it on “fake news” or a liberal conspiracy, to claiming that it was under control. It doesn’t matter if he was unaware of what was happening or if he was simply lying – the result is the same. We lost precious time that could have been spent preparing for what was certainly headed our way.
The third mistake – still ongoing –m is lack of a coherent, coordinated national strategy. Most of the country is essentially under lockdown. By now most of us understand that the purpose of this is to “flatten the curve” so that the numbers of people who get the disease and then progress to severe or critical status do not overwhelm the healthcare system. But what is the exit strategy for these draconian measures? How do we know when we have achieved that objective?
Testing is still woefully inadequate in many places, but even as we increase testing and begin to understand the extent of spread, why hasn’t the federal government standardized reporting requirements for data critical to making public health decisions? Each state currently reports their numbers, but important information such as total tests administered is not being consistently reported. Collecting complete and consistent data from all 50 states seems like low hanging fruit, and lack of it seems like a serious problem for assessing our progress as a nation.
The dismal response by our federal government to this crisis reminds me of a quote from the introduction to the book Franklin and Winston by Jon Meacham. The book is about the relationship between Roosevelt and Churchill and how important it is to have the right leaders in place when we face these epic challenges. Roosevelt and Churchill demonstrated the wisdom and fortitude equal to the challenge. Donald Trump has demonstrated neither. And as Meacham put it, sometimes “it does matter who is in power at critical points” in our history.