What is going on? Part of it is a preoccupation with President Trump’s ratings ahead of the November election. Public health experts, for instance, have raised alarm about political interference that removed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from leadership in providing clear guidance for reopening and recovery based on data and evidence. Last week, the president tweeted that the CDC’s guidelines for school reopening were “very tough and expensive.” This assessment was followed by confusion: Vice President Pence said revised guidelines would be issued, and a day later, the CDC director, Robert Redfield, backtracked, saying they would remain the same with additional guidance provided.
And as infection rates continue to rise, so has the White House’s search for scapegoats. Managing the administration’s public image appears to be the top priority, never mind that the virus is indifferent to these maneuvers. Trump’s decision to direct full blame at China and the World Health Organization and withdraw from the WHO in the midst of a global pandemic is particularly worrisome. Reports that the administration is deliberating on restructuring the CDC and directing more blame for the crisis there are also troubling at a time when public health officials across the country are being threatened. And the further confirmation that National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Director Anthony S. Fauci’s input is unwanted, as the White House shares with reporters a lengthy list of “mistakes” made in his comments early in the outbreak, adds to a pattern of blaming and redirecting responsibility for the failed response.
Rather than bolstering public health infrastructure, the administration’s approach appears to be to blame, punish and weaken. After months of sacrifice in which Americans were asked to stay home and close businesses to reduce the virus’s spread, the federal government has not ensured that anywhere can reopen safely. Instead, the Trump administration simply decided that it is now time to move on, and that not to do so amounts to taking the “easy way out.” The result is pressure on schools and universities, without the government having done the necessary work to strengthen our public health systems.
To be fair, the erosion of public health infrastructure has occurred across Republican and Democratic administrations, but this time, it seems to be politically motivated. And it raises the question of whether a similar calculus of blame avoidance is the reason for the administration’s refusal to lead a coordinated national response. Rather than serving as a strong partner to local authorities, is it possible that the Trump White House is intentionally shifting responsibility, and therefore blame for any uptick in deaths, to governors? From the beginning, Trump has left states to fend for themselves, and he frequently blames governors — not the lack of a coordinated federal strategy — for the spread of the virus.
An absent federal government means that states and local authorities need to address critical health-care shortages — such as in personal protective equipment and ventilators — on their own, incur tremendous costs in reopening schools safely, and most likely lay off a large number of government workers because there isn’t significant direct aid coming to offset losses in tax and fee revenue. While Congress has enacted some relief laws, including the Cares Act in March, and it’s been supplementing incomes through the Paycheck Protection Program and unemployment insurance, much greater investments are needed. Without an adequate response, individuals and communities that have the money to protect themselves will be able to do so, but the death rates will continue to climb in communities of color and among poorer Americans. Cuts in state budgets will also disproportionately harm those same communities. Already, covid-19 has demonstrated deep racial inequities. So far, excess covid-19 mortality has been borne especially by black, Latino and Native American communities. The decision to persuade the public that we must simply learn to live with thousands of infections each day disregards these inequities about who will be disproportionately harmed. In that way, it isn’t just bad public health; it’s also racist.
Trump’s encouragement of defiance of methods to reduce transmission, from rejecting masks to rushing to reopen without adequate safeguards, has already accelerated the spread of the virus. But as the pandemic sweeps into more rural areas, it is possible that the administration will need to switch tactics and narrative once again. If there is a belief in this White House that the dead won’t be among “our people,” which one wishes was unthinkable, that ultimately will not hold up. The idea that rural and small-town white America is somehow culturally or biologically resistant will falter. Though inequality is racialized in the United States, the same circumstances that create the unfair odds of coronavirus infection — crowded housing, crowded workplaces, inadequate labor protections — also affect many white Americans.
When confronting lethal microbes, humans rely on our wits and capacity to collaborate, as Yale professor Frank Snowden has noted. In quick order after he took office nearly four years ago, Trump dispatched with preparedness. Now, actually faced with a pandemic, he has abandoned any input from scientists. Withdrawal from the WHO removes the United States from the main forum for international cooperation. A federal government that is witless and on its own makes inevitable the grim unfolding scenario.
We hope it won’t take the death toll reaching 200,000 before the administration acknowledges how disastrous the federal response has been and switches tactics. But we fear that only a change in administration can reset our path to recovery.