The Trump Administration is Not Ready for the Coronavirus

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tags: public health, budgets, coronavirus

Robert Brent Toplin has published eleven books and more than a hundred articles. He was a professor at Denison University and the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Since retirement, he has taught occasional courses at the University of Virginia. Contact: toplinrb@uncw.edu



Recently, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the coronavirus will likely spread to U.S. communities. Unfortunately, federal agencies most responsible for dealing with the virus have been hit by funding cuts. Furthermore, the Trump administration’s first efforts in the emergency have been chaotic. Washington seems poorly prepared to deal with a COVID-19 pandemic if it strikes the United States. 

The first signs of governmental disorganization appeared when authorities in Washington had to decide about sheltering Americans from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. Several passengers tested positive for the coronavirus. Experts at the CDC wanted them to remain in Japan. Individuals at the State Department and a health official from the Trump administration overruled the CDC. They allowed more than 300 cruise ship passengers to fly to the United States and then tried to send them to facilities in California and Alabama. Residents in the selected communities objected vigorously. Citizens of Costa Mesa, California pointed out, for example, that a field outside a Development Center where the people would be housed is a popular playground for neighborhood children. 

If these botched efforts to provide care for just a few hundred people are an indication of the government’s readiness for dealing with a large-scale pandemic, the situation looks troubling. 

Trump’s public comments have not been helpful. The president likened the coronavirus to the common flu, predicting it would fade away when spring arrived. Even though CDC officials urged the American government to prepare for likely outbreaks in the U.S., Trump declared the virus “is very well under control in our country.” He claimed, “very few people” have been infected, and “they’re all getting better.” At a press conference Trump suggested the United States was “very close” to developing a vaccine. Medical professionals said a widely available vaccine is probably 12 to 18 months away. 

In the face of a global pandemic Americans are recognizing that government has an important role to play in protecting them. Perhaps lessons learned in the present crisis will bring greater questioning of a message Ronald Reagan accentuated in his inaugural address: “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” Later, in a 1986 news conference, Reagan said with humor and ridicule, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”

President Obama demonstrated how a smart, coordinated governmental reaction to a health threat can yield impressive results. Obama made Ronald Klain, a talented Washington staffer, America’s “epidemic czar.” Klain coordinated the work of numerous federal agencies to contain the deadly Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa. His work helped prevent Ebola’s spread across the globe. 

Health officials now find it difficult to launch a fast and effective response to the coronavirus, because the Trump administration has been undermining their programs. The White House cut $15 billion in national health spending and slashed the global disease-fighting operation budgets of the CDC, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Health and Human Services. Staff layoffs at the CDC’s global health section were so great that the number of countries in which the agency was working had to be reduced from 49 to 10. In 2018 the Trump administration disbanded the National Security Council’s global health security unit and reassigned the Rear Admiral that was coordinating its efforts. 

The Trump administration’s rollbacks left the American people vulnerable, but blame cannot be placed solely on the current administration. Contempt for the federal government has been growing over several decades, and many federal programs designed to protect the public have been slashed. Back in 1958, a survey showed 73% of respondents generally trusted the government to do the right thing. Confidence dropped precipitously in the 1970s. A 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that only 24% had confidence that government would do the right thing.

Perhaps some of that negative impression of government’s role in U.S. society will begin to change. Already some Republicans in Washington are complaining about the administration’s confused and tepid response to the threat of a pandemic. They are troubled by conflicting statements. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar warned about a potentially severe health challenge, and Republican Senator Richard Shelby questioned the adequacy of medical spending. Nevertheless, President Trump claimed the situation is well under control. 

If GOP legislators and members of the president’s “base” sense that the Trump administration undermined government’s preparedness for dealing with a pandemic, some of Trump’s loyal support may slip. Discontent over Washington’s handling of the threat and the damage coronavirus is doing to the U. S. and global economies might achieve what journalists’ investigations and congressional hearings failed to do. The health crisis may chip away at some of the rock-solid political backing that Trump has enjoyed until now. 

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