Trump has insisted that no one could have seen the coronavirus coming. His predecessor did.
In December 2014, then-President Barack Obama warned that the United States needed to prepare for an upcoming pandemic.
In a speech to members of the National Institutes of Health—which came only a short time after the Ebola outbreak had threatened to spread worldwide—Obama emphasized the importance of building a public health infrastructure to combat the next pandemic.
“There may and likely will come a time in which we have both an airborne disease that is deadly,” Obama said. “And in order for us to deal with that effectively, we have to put in place an infrastructure—not just here at home, but globally—that allows us to see it quickly, isolate it quickly, respond to it quickly, so that if and when a new strain of flu like the Spanish flu crops up five years from now or a decade from now, we’ve made the investment and we’re further along to be able to catch it.”
Obama’s words now seem depressingly prescient as the novel coronavirus has spread rapidly across the United States, infecting more than 583,000 Americans and killing roughly 23,650 people. As the outbreak has ravaged the country, President Trump has refused to take responsibility for the way his administration has failed to adequately respond to the crisis and instead has blamed others for the severity of the pandemic.
Unsurprisingly, one of his favorite targets has been former President Obama.
For weeks, Trump has repeatedly blamed Obama for his own slow response, arguing the former president who left office more than three years ago is to blame for the nation’s testing failures and “severe” and “widespread” shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) for doctors and nurses.
He has also insisted that no one could have seen the coronavirus coming. “Nobody knew there would be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion. Nobody has ever seen anything like this before,” Trump said on March 19.
But Obama and his administration did see it coming, thanks in large part to their experiences with the 2009 H1N1 (swine flu) and 2014 Ebola outbreaks. Taking what they learned from those public health crises, the Obama administration sought to prepare Trump and his aides for the next pandemic. The current president, however, spent the first three years of his administration undermining and ignoring those pandemic preparedness efforts; he also ignored warnings from experts during the first three months of the coronavirus outbreak.
To really understand how Trump has failed the American people, it’s important to take a look back at how the previous administration handled the threat of a pandemic.
A Different Virus, A Different President
In March 2009, a novel influenza A, H1N1, was identified in Mexico before spreading quickly across the U.S. and the rest of the world. The new virus contained a unique combination of influenza genes that had not previously been seen in humans or animals, making it a unique threat to public health.
Sensing this threat, the Obama administration acted early and decisively to prevent the swine flu pandemic from devastating the U.S. Just a week after the flu first appeared in Mexico, Obama instructed every federal agency to play a role in preparing the U.S. for a pandemic. H1N1 was first detected in the U.S. on April 15, 2009 and within a week, the CDC had already begun working to develop a vaccine and activated its Emergency Operations Center to respond to what it identified as a growing public health threat.
Eleven days after the first case was confirmed, the federal government declared a public health emergency and began releasing medical supplies and drugs from the CDC’s Strategic National Stockpile. By April 28, 2009, the Food and Drug Administration approved a new CDC test to detect H1N1 infections.
Obama’s response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak was similarly marked by action. The president appointed Ronald Klain, an attorney and former chief of staff to then-Vice President Joe Biden, as the White House Ebola response coordinator. Klain oversaw an enormous response that included $5.4 billion in emergency funding in December 2014, most of which was dedicated to international activities combating Ebola.
The U.S. sent thousands of health officials to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, where the virus was spreading, to help with response efforts and limit the virus’ spread. The Obama administration helped create 15 Ebola treatment centers in the region, provided PPE and medical relief supplies to the countries, and conducted aggressive contact tracing to identify how the virus was spreading to limit its spread beyond Western Africa.
There were an estimated 12,469 deaths from H1N1 in the United States. Only one person in the United States died from Ebola after traveling from West Africa to Dallas, Texas.
Then Came the Trump Administration
To help the incoming administration be better prepared to fight future pandemics, officials under President Obama took what they learned from these battles and prepared a 69-page playbook. Written by Obama’s National Security Council and finalized in 2016, the playbook detailed strategies for when and how to obtain personal protective equipment, and included recommendations on how the government should move quickly to detect and contain potential outbreaks, secure additional funding, and possibly even invoke the Defense Production Act to compel private companies to produce needed medical supplies.
But the Trump administration ignored the playbook. Instead, as the Associated Press reported, the Trump administration wasted nearly two months that could have been used to bolster the federal stockpile of critically needed supplies and equipment. Federal agencies waited until mid-March to begin placing bulk orders of N95 respirator masks, mechanical ventilators, and other equipment needed by front-line health care workers. By then, it was too late. Doctors, nurses, and hospital administrators have spent weeks pleading for more PPE, ventilators, and medical supplies.
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While the national stockpile of critically needed medical supplies and equipment had been chronically underfunded even in prior administrations, Trump himself did nothing to address the issue during his first three years in office, or during the critical months of January and February. In early February, the White House rejected a request from Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar for $2 billion to buy respirator masks and other supplies for the depleted stockpile, instead approving only $500 million when it sent Congress its budget request weeks later.
“We basically wasted two months,” Kathleen Sebelius, Health and Human Services secretary during the Obama administration, told the AP.
Outgoing Obama administration officials also prepared a “tabletop exercise” just days before Trump’s inauguration, in which they briefed Trump’s top aides on the potential dangers of a pandemic—such as the one now devastating the United States. As Politico reported in March, the Trump team was told it could face specific challenges, such as shortages of ventilators, antiviral drugs, and other medical essentials. Obama administration officials emphasized that having a coordinated, unified national response was “paramount.”
That, of course, has not happened. Instead, President Trump spent weeks downplaying the virus, spouting rampant misinformation and contradicting his own medical and scientific advisors. Even as he began to acknowledge the reality of the pandemic, Trump refused to take responsibility for the shortages of ventilators, PPE, and other medical supplies.
The Trump administration also famously disbanded the National Security Council team focused on pandemic preparedness. In the wake of the Ebola epidemic, officials who worked with Obama realized the need for an international health security infrastructure; they formed pandemic-focused teams inside federal agencies to harness the powers of the U.S. government to prepare for the next outbreak. Instead, the White House dissolved the office in May 2018 and never reinstated it, despite pleas from lawmakers, former government officials, and other experts.
Trump has dismissed criticism that disbanding the team slowed down his administration’s response, and attacked a journalist for asking about it at a White House briefing, calling it “a “nasty question.”
“I don’t know anything about it,” Trump falsely stated at a March 13 press conference.
The president has also repeatedly made cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the agency in charge of responding to outbreaks, as well as other public health programs. In February, when the coronavirus was already spreading in the U.S., the Trump administration’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2021 requested $700 million in cuts to the CDC and a total of $3 billion in cuts to global health programs.
Another Set of Warnings Ignored
It wasn’t just Obama-era officials who were ignored by Trump and his administration. The New York Times reported over the weekend that several medical and science experts across the federal government as well as some of the president’s own advisors also saw the pandemic coming and tried to sound the alarms, to no avail.
Trump, who campaigned on a promise of “America First,” has also ignored advice and requests from long-time U.S. allies who have sought a globally coordinated response to the pandemic. Trump’s disdain for international cooperation is nothing new; throughout his time in office, he has repeatedly attacked allies and downplayed or ignored the importance of international alliances.
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But as the coronavirus has spread across the world, ignoring borders and making clear the need for a global public health response, Trump’s approach—which includes commandeering hundreds of thousands of protective masks from other countries and threatening to defund the World Health Organization—has not only isolated allies but actively angered them, making a global response to a global pandemic all the more difficult.
In characteristic fashion, as the debate surrounding coronavirus has begun to pivot to when to “reopen” the economy, Trump is once again ignoring warnings from experts—this time, about the dangers of “reopening” the economy too quickly without a plan. Such action, health experts say, could lead to a resurgence in the spread of COVID-19, causing thousands more deaths.
Despite these dire predictions, Trump appears ready to plow ahead, ignoring experts’ advice, as he has from day one.
“I want to get it open as soon as we can. We have to get our country open,” Trump said at a White House briefing on Friday. When asked by reporters which metrics he would use to make a decision, he pointed to his head: “The metrics right here. That’s my metrics. That’s all I can do.”