Political Realities of the Pandemic, Final Part
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed President Donald Trump’s incompetence in dealing with it. Not only was his response so inadequate and passive, he worsen it by implementing policies he never really fully studied. Being a businessman, Trump thought that his own understanding of world trade was enough for him to embark on such dangerous experiments like starting a trade war.
Trump’s 25 % tariffs on Chinese exports to the United States, specifically medical parts and components, meant that American health companies were paying more because tariffs are passed on to the consumers. Earlier in the year, Trump boasted about China agreeing to implement Phase I of the new trade agreement on February 14 in the midst of the pandemic. Still, Trump’s additional tariffs remained on $360 billion of imports from China which covered about nearly $5 billion of imports to potentially treat COVI-19 including other critical health care products (i.e., hand sanitizers, PPE, etc.).
The unheralded announcement in March temporarily suspending the tariffs was at the request of multiple industry lobby groups affected by it. Trump actually was already told in 2018 about the folly of such trade war because of the immense impact Trump’s tariffs would have on the American health sector, of how essential these products were to protecting healthcare providers and their patients every single day and in response to public health emergencies. But they went unheeded.
On virus testing, America could have started testing back in January when World Health Organization (WHO) offered its testing kits but the Trump administration refused to use them and opted instead for kits made in America. But there was a problem. The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) had very limited capability early on and was therefore unprepared for what was to come.
In early February, CDC distributed about 200 test kits that it produced, to over a hundred public health labs run by states nationwide. Each test kit could only test about 300-400 patients and therefore were woefully lacking even for those who truly need them. The confusion that ensued following the lack of proper guidelines on who to test and the lack of testing capabilities added to the chaos further endangering the public.
Add to the testing snafus were faulty test kits early on that were apparently contaminated at CDC. The CDC finally admitted, that the agency could not possibly meet nationwide needs for testing and asked for private hospitals and commercial testing help to get a better feel of the magnitude of the virus spread. Trump could have invoked the Defense Procurement Act (DPA) early on but he didn’t pull the trigger until late March and was finally implemented in early April. By this time, the number of positive cases and number of deaths was rapidly climbing. The DPA also gave the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) some leg up as it started loosening up the rules to allow development of rapid testing kits.
In past pandemics, the United States relied on its own stockpile to provide rapid response to states where the supplies were needed. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under the Department of Homeland Security is tasked with coordinating the response to a disaster emergency. But for FEMA to execute its mandate, the president must authorize it. The authorization did not come until much later when governors of states mostly affected (California, New York, and Washington State) by the pandemic started raising hell and issued statewide lockdowns sans a presidential declaration. FEMA early on could have started providing rapid deployment of on the ground logistical support from the federal stockpile. Trump did not trigger the Stafford Act until late March thus allowing deployment of military assets including deployment of the National Guard and the two Navy hospital ships, MERCY and COMFORT.
Many could not figure out why the president was so hesitant in triggering the DPA and the Stafford Act when both can expedite government mandates to respond to the pandemic. It turned out, the stockpile was depleted early on because the State Department under Sec. Mike Pompeo, started giving away tons of needed emergency personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves, etc., and medical equipment (ventilators) in lieu of financial aid, to China and other countries in January as part of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) program.
This continued in March until it became clear the United States badly needed them. Vice President Mike Pence who heads the Pandemic Task Force found out what was happening when the administration formally requested Thailand for PPE support. And Thailand’s response was “we got our first shipment of PPE from the U.S. and the second U.S. shipment was on the way – and you want us to do what?” Pence was so shocked, needless to say, of the government’s right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing. He immediately put a freeze on the shipments but the hemorrhage was near complete as the stockpile dried up. One of Trump’s complaint was that the Obama administration left them with antiquated equipment and unusable testing kits that they had to start over. Well, the reason Trump’s administration had to start over was because the contract to maintain what was in the stockpile expired in 2018 and was not renewed. Therefore, many in the stockpile became unreliable with many equipment left broken.
One saving grace for Trump would have been a now obscure unit, the Global Health Security and Biodefense unit under the National Security Council (NSC) that was established under President Barack Obama after the Ebola epidemic in 2014. The unit would have been Trump’s sounding board as it was originally tasks to “do everything possible within the vast powers and resources of the U.S. government to prepare for the next disease outbreak and preventing it from becoming a pandemic.”
When John Bolton became National Security Advisor in 2018, however, the unit was disbanded by the White House shifting focus instead to Iran and North Korea. This was also the time when the White House was very chaotic due to the infighting and the ongoing purge of Trump’s so-called “Administrative State.” The long running purge resulted in many unfilled vacancies and people in acting capacities in critical areas we now know is or should have been playing critical roles preventing or responding to the pandemic.
Trump’s incompetence has been laid bare during his daily White House Task Force briefing and he and his supporters’ focus now is vilifying China and the WHO as an unfolding political strategy for his reelection campaign. The strategy seems to encourage hatred towards China and the WHO and tying former Vice President Joe Biden to them by association.
Yes, the virus came from China - that was not Trump’s fault; but the United States’ delayed response and unpreparedness lies totally on Trump’s doorstep and that his policies and trade war with China and other trading partners complicated the pandemic response that left America isolated and exposed.