[COMMENTARY] COVID-19: How Did This Happen?
This article explores the macro-level questions relating to our government’s response to COVID-19. However, it’s critical for all readers to also understand the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on people of color in America. This is another byproduct of systemic racism.
The summer was supposed to be a backstop. The warm weather was supposed to slow the spread. And yet, as June turns to July, we stand virtually alone in the world as the only industrialized nation on earth that hasn’t been able to get the spread of COVID-19 under control. The question is why?
The answer isn’t our form of government, as other democracies like Germany and South Korea have fared quite well. The answer isn’t federalism and the distributed nature of decision making in America, as entities with far more decentralized structures, like the European Union, have badly outperformed the United States. To understand the answer to this question, we must understand the playbook for handling a pandemic.
While difficult to execute, the playbook for governmental response is actually pretty straightforward. There are things a government can control and there are things a government can only influence. The countries that do well manage the things they can control effectively, and influence the things they cannot control effectively enough.
In order to successfully manage a pandemic, you need to do a few things well. First, you must be prepared. Second, you must quickly mobilize a national response. Third, you must stay ahead of the virus. Fourth, you let the virus dictate the timelines. Finally, you do everything you can to guide public behavior toward healthy action.
It should be clear that the first four are areas a government can control, and the last one is something leaders can only influence. The story of America’s failure to beat COVID-19 is the story of failure on all five fronts. The Trump Administration failed to manage the things they could control, and intentionally pushed a public narrative that essentially guaranteed the public would behave in ways that would undermine public health.
In the early days of the pandemic, the use of face masks quickly spread through many Asian countries. Part of the reason why is there is far less stigma around masks given past experiences with other viruses. Even if the Trump Administration quickly embraced masks (which it obviously did not), America didn’t have enough supply of PPE (personal protective equipment) for its own healthcare workers. Consequently, we didn’t even have the chance to take a very simple, low-cost action to help slow the spread. Our lack of preparedness forced our leaders to actively dissuade people from buying masks. Admittedly, people were unsure if masks would prove effective against a novel virus at first.
Some might say that this blame should fall onto previous administrations. After all, President Obama made a speech in 2014 focused on preparing for a pandemic. Keep in mind, though, the GOP controlled both chambers of Congress until 2019, (and thus were responsible for passing budgets and determining funding levels) and President Trump had three full years to address this issue as well. Further, the Trump Administration ignored the 69-page pandemic playbook Obama’s team left for them, disbanded the pandemic response team on the national security council, and pulled CDC officials placed inside China to help detect potential pandemics. In other words, the Trump Administration had the information they needed and totally ignored it. America was caught flat-footed as a result.
Quickly Mobilize A National Response:
America and South Korea experienced our first known positive test cases on exactly the same day, January 20th. South Korea moved quickly and coordinated a national effort right away. America moved slowly, as the government dismissed the threat and made it harder for healthcare professionals and industries to respond.
In South Korea, the first diagnostic test was approved and began to be scaled by early February. They immediately began an aggressive testing program, isolated all known positive cases, and did thorough contact tracing (something we’re still struggling to do) to help them know who else to test and isolate.
By the time we declared a national emergency on March 13th, they had already tested more than 300,000 people and isolated the sick. We tested fewer than 20,000 people in the same period. If we had tested at the same per capita rate as South Korea we would have already tested 1.5M people by that time. It took us well into April to reach that level. By the time we did, it was too late.
There are some that argue America’s federalist system dictates a localized strategy. In fact, that defense was presented over and over as the Trump Administration took criticism for their lack of leadership. However, you cannot find a single instance of a successful national response to COVID-19 that doesn’t include a national approach with centralized leadership. Why? The virus doesn’t care about borders and local leaders lack the power and resources needed to confront this type of threat.
Local leadership to an earthquake makes a ton of sense. Decentralizing responses to a shared crisis only leads to chaos. This was on full display as America’s governors bid against each other for basic supplies.
Stay Ahead Of The Virus:
You cannot beat a pandemic from behind. It’s really that simple. If the spread of the virus moves into exponential growth territory, you’re too late. The only options from that point forward are either to order a shutdown or to mobilize a massive testing, tracing, and isolation strategy. That’s it. You have no other choices to get the spread under control. And, because of the issue identified above, when the virus exploded in America, our only option initially was a shutdown.
Had we moved the way South Korea had, a shutdown may have been avoided. That matters not just because of the unnecessary loss of life, but because of the economic damage. To be as clear as possible, the economic pain America is experiencing isn’t just a function of a pandemic. It’s a function of how the Trump Administration responded to it as well. The pandemic was going to cause economic pain no matter what. But, the depth of our economic pain is tied to the breadth of our failure on the healthcare front. This is a healthcare crisis that caused an economic crisis. Only when we solve the healthcare crisis, will our economic crisis come to an end.
Given a two week incubation period, plus testing backlogs that can run up to one week (we’re nearing that again now), the testing results we see tomorrow will only tell us how much the virus was spreading up to three weeks ago. That is why many experts worry the next week in America is going to be truly awful in terms of the total new cases we’re going to find. It wasn’t until last week that governors in hard-hit areas began to reverse course. This means the public was continuing to engage “normally” while the virus was spreading at massive rates.
Those states now only have two options to slow down the spread. Shut back down some or all of the state, or effectively execute a massive test, trace, and isolation strategy. However, if you’re living in Texas or Florida, where you’re experiencing 6,0000 to 10,000 new cases per day, it’s incredibly difficult to contact trace for each infected person, day after day, given our current staffing levels. This is a massive failure on our part. With nearly 20 million unemployed people, we certainly have the capacity to do this right if we had a national strategy to fund this work.
Again, testing, tracing, and isolation isn’t some novel strategy. It’s a known approach and part of the playbook. But in order to do it, you need a lot of tests and a lot of contact tracers. In some places, we have enough tests. But, we definitely don’t have enough people to contact trace. And don’t let the lower death rates fool you. Yes, we’re learning to treat the virus better. But, deaths are a lagging indicator. In a few week’s time, the numbers will almost certainly rise again.
The virus doesn’t care about borders and it certainly doesn’t care about our schedules. However, within two short weeks of declaring a national emergency, with cases and deaths still rising sharply, President Trump started talking about reopening. While it seems like so long ago, by March 24th he was calling for American’s to be back in church for Easter Sunday. Trump declared a national emergency on March 13th. Eleven days later he had essentially stopped trying to deal with the healthcare crisis in a serious way and started pushing people to go back out into the world. Needless to say, the virus didn’t cooperate.
This set in motion a massive push to reopen America that largely fell along partisan lines. By the last week of April, governors began reopening their states. To be clear, this was only Republican governors at that point, and most of them lead states that are now being devastated by the virus. Did these governors open too soon? The answer is yes, but not because of the reasons we assume on the surface. It wasn’t simply the timing that was a problem. It was the failure to listen to the guidance laid out by the experts for how to open and when to move into subsequent phases.
The White House laid out pretty good guidelines, and then every governor ignored them, in no small part because the President himself was urging them to do so. Among other things, the guidelines stressed that cases and deaths should be falling for 14 straight days and that states should have enough testing and tracing capacity, before moving to “Phase One” reopening. It won’t shock you to learn that this guidance was totally ignored.
Does this mean we shouldn’t have reopened? Of course not. At some point, we had to. We just weren’t prepared to do so effectively because we wasted so much time in February, March, and April.
Influence Public Behavior Toward Healthy Action:
Getting the public to take action that helps minimize the spread of the virus isn’t easy. However, it’s clearly possible given that so many other nations have figured out how to do it. What’s the secret? Leadership committed to providing people with direct, honest, and consistent messaging. This requires listening to and legitimizing public health experts. Needless to say, President Trump did the opposite. At first, he dismissed this as a hoax, then he said it would just disappear in April, and then he quickly transitioned from focusing on the virus to focusing on opening up.
The words of the President had massively negative impacts as his messaging got pushed through the media ecosystem, reinforced by many in his party. Some were true believers. Others were trapped by the traditional and social media feedback loops and the political pressure that followed. Very few demonstrated the courage and wisdom that Larry Hogan of Maryland and Mike DeWine of Ohio did.
Had a Democrat been president, or frankly had almost ANY other Republican, there would still have been a decent-sized faction of people in America who thought COVID-19 was fake or overblown. There would have been some who refused to wear a mask. Such is our nature and political culture. However, a strong supermajority of Americans likely would have perceived the threat in far more similar terms, leading to far more consistent and healthy public behavior.
The result of Trump’s rhetoric was a national perception of the pandemic that was largely split based on political leanings. First on whether or not this was real. Then on how bad it was. Then on whether or not to close. Then on how quickly to open. And now, finally, on masks.
This isn’t normal. It’s not because of our natural mistrust of the government. It’s because of our leadership and the way the President chose to engage. Anyone who says otherwise is either in denial or doesn’t understand how information moves through our modern society.
The Trump Administration failed to manage the things they could control, and the President himself intentionally engaged in ways that sowed deep division and confusion across the country. That’s how we got here.
ABOUT Oren Jacobson
Masters in IR. Masters in Economics & Policy Analysis. MBA. Civic Entrepreneur/Organizer. Strategy Consultant. Men4Choice. NLC. Truman. Proudly Jewish.