The outbreak of an epidemic is something like a natural disaster — a spontaneous, accidental eruption that is no one’s fault. But that does not mean we can do little about it and just wait for it to run its deadly course. The evidence is now clear: The spread of the virus can be greatly reduced if governments act early, aggressively and intelligently. Unfortunately, that does not describe the response of the U.S. government to the coronavirus pandemic.
We can track the speed of the outbreak since January, by which time the virus had spread from China to other countries. In South Korea, after an initial spike, the number of new cases has slowed. Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan — despite lots of travelers from China — have kept numbers low from the beginning. In the United States, however, we are seeing accelerating increases.
What did the successful countries do that seems to have worked? They began testing early and often. They coupled these tests with careful quarantines of those infected and tracking of where they had been, to better predict where the next outbreaks might occur. The public health systems had surge capacity because funding had been adequate. And authorities largely communicated simple, clear and consistent messages to the public.
One new study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, argues that without enhanced detection and restrictions on movement, the number of cases in China could have been 67 times higher by the end of February. And had China started acting just one week earlier, there could have been 66 percent fewer cases.
“Who would have thought we would even be having [this crisis]?” President Trump said last week. In fact, the director for medical and biodefense preparedness policy of his own National Security Council gave a speech in Atlanta in 2018 saying, “The threat of pandemic flu is our number one health security concern. We know that it cannot be stopped at the border.” The day after she made this speech, the White House eliminated her unit. (Hat tip to “The Daily” podcast from the New York Times.)
Trump did make one very good decision — to ban most travelers from China from entering the United States, on Jan. 31. That bought the United States time. Alas, that time was wasted as testing turned into a fiasco.
If this were a war, the generals in charge of this operation would have been relieved of their command. Just one comparison: South Korea has tested more than 230,000 potential cases with a population of about 50 million. In the United States, this would be about 1.5 million. In fact, the United States has conducted about 10,000 tests in public health labs (and more in private labs). Per capita, the United States has tested far fewer people than most other advanced countries.
Trump’s most recent, dramatic move — the travel ban on most of Europe — is symbolic of the administration’s actions. The thousands of Americans currently in Europe are apparently exempt, as are a small number of others. More importantly, the disease is already in the United States and spreading. The policy was so poorly thought through that amendments, corrections and reversals were made to the president’s speech within minutes of his having delivered it.
This crisis seems to have been designed to bring out the worst in Trump. The president doesn’t like or trust experts, often explaining that he knows more than they do. He has bluffed and fibbed his way through much of his life and thinks nothing of doing so again — except this time we are not charmed or amused by the bluster but rather frightened.
In most global crises, the United States takes the lead and provides comfort and assurances to the world. In this one, Trump has been mostly AWOL. When he does appear, it is to blame the disease on foreigners and announce policies that are designed to reinforce that view. The broad collapse in global markets is surely in part a reaction to the vast vacuum of leadership in the White House.
Trump views everything from the narcissistic prism of his ego. He dismisses opposing views and insists that even the senior-most members of his administration repeatedly praise him and his leadership at all times. Watching the heads of America’s leading science agencies prefacing their statements with ritual praise for the “dear leader” has been depressing.
Come to think of it, the Trump administration has been copying the wrong Korea. Instead of the intelligence and expertise of South Korea, it is emulating the sycophancy, incompetence and propaganda of North Korea.
Coronavirus: What you need to know
Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.
Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.
Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.
Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.
Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.
For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.