The United States has recorded over 200,000 deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic. Months of an uncontained coronavirus pandemic have left the US in far worse shape than other countries, like South Korea. President Donald Trump tested positive for coronavirus on October 2, 2020. The US practically invented the playbook of how to confront pandemics. Presidents — like George W. Bush and Barack Obama — worked to ensure that if a pandemic came, there would be an effective plan to respond. Yet while other countries used that playbook, and succeeded in doing what was necessary to get the coronavirus under control, the Trump administration threw out the plan.
On January 19th, 2020, a 35-year-old American man entered an emergency health clinic in Washington State. He had been suffering from a fever and cough for four days. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a 35-year-old Chinese woman had arrived at Incheon International Airport in Seoul, Republic of Korea. She had a fever, chills, and muscle pain, but had been told by a doctor she merely had a cold. Both had just arrived from Wuhan, China.
The next day, January 20th, both tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The first case in each country. South Korea took immediate drastic steps to prevent the virus from spreading. The United States did not.
Trump said “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China. It’s going to be just fine.” Both South Korea and the United States had emergency plans for dealing with epidemics and experience fighting deadly viruses. In 2015, a South Korean businessman came down with MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, after returning from a business trip. It spread to 186 people. 36 died. The government rushed to trace, test, and quarantine 17,000 people.
Great Work by President George W. Bush
A decade earlier, President George W. Bush was at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. As he read through the galley of an upcoming book, “The Great Influenza”, by historian John M. Barry, he was shaken by the story of a mysterious plague that killed millions worldwide. He feared it could happen again. Bush said “If we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare, and one day many lives could be needlessly lost because we failed to act today.”
His administration created a 381 page outbreak response plan. President Obama used it to fight Ebola in 2014, and then expanded it. The plan was passed on to Donald Trump’s incoming administration. They were shown a simulation of what could happen. Some napped through the presentation, and in 2018 President Donald Trump disbanded the pandemic response team.
How South Korea handled the situation?
In January of 2020, when South Korea detected its first coronavirus case, the country’s leaders immediately got to work. Their first task, develop a test, and start quarantining people right away. Within a week, the government and its center for disease control sat down with 20 private research companies. Less than two weeks later on February 7th, the first test was approved. Pharmaceutical companies immediately began mass producing tests. The government shored up their already large stockpile of medical equipment.
Because of the rapid response, South Korea was able to keep many factories, shopping malls, and restaurants open through the spring.
How Donald Trump lead team handled the situation?
In the United States, on the last day of 2019, Alex Azar, the Department of Health and Human Services secretary, got a call from the CDC. Azar informed the White House National Security Council about the emerging outbreak. Azar formed a task force of the US’ top public health experts to prepare the country for a worst case scenario including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who had overseen the US’ response to HIV, Swine Flu, Zika, and Ebola. Their priorities include, Medical equipment for testing and a quarantine strategy.
They drafted plans to implement the Defense Production Act, where private companies are compelled to produce equipment, but the pushback from the Trump administration was immediate. While Fauci and his team were working to understand the virus and prepare the country, Azar was finding it difficult to get guidance from the White House. Azar finally got through to Trump on January 18th.
Vacation Time For Donald Trump
The president was vacationing in Mar-a-Lago, and didn’t want to talk about the virus. Instead, he complained about Azar’s handling of a recent vaping ban. When the first patient, the 35-year-old man in Washington State, was diagnosed, the president immediately down played it. Trump said “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.“
The next day, China shut down Wuhan and Hubei province to contain the disease. In an email chain on January 28th, Carter Mecher warned the projected size of the outbreak already seems hard to believe. He was one of the medical advisors who introduced the concept of social distancing into the George W. Bush pandemic plan.
The National Security Council created its own coronavirus task force, including Azar and Fauci, but Trump continued to downplay the danger. He ignored requests to prioritize testing, instead taking action to keep infected people in China. He announced a travel ban, but over 300,000 people had already come to the US from China since the start of the outbreak. Many insiders wanted more, namely travel bans to and from other countries like Italy, but Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, overruled them, fearing bans could hinder the US economy and international trade.
Budget issues from Donald Trump
Azar worried they weren’t doing enough and asked for $4 billion to stockpile ventilators, masks, and other equipment. The budget team was outraged and an argument broke out in the White House Situation Room.
On February 6th, the World Health Organization shipped out 250,000 coronavirus tests to various countries. America received none because the CDC said the US didn’t “need somebody else’s test”. But the CDC had only shipped out 90 tests by that point, and most of them were faulty. At a black tie event a few nights later, state governors were warned about how bad an outbreak in the United States could become. Many of the governors were rattled by what they heard. But earlier that day, the president and Congress had cut well over a billion dollars in CDC funding, and in New Hampshire one day later, Trump continued to strike an optimistic tone.
Trump said “It looks like by April, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away. I hope that’s true.” Several days later without consulting him first, Trump’s team publicly announced recommendations to limit public gatherings, to close schools and most offices. Trump watched in anger from Air Force One as the stock market plunged. When he landed on February 26th, he berated Azar for scaring people. Trump canceled his meeting about social distancing. He then put vice president, Mike Pence, in charge of the White House coronavirus response. And it was full court press by the administration and Fox News to convince everyone there was nothing to worry about.
Statements from Donald Trump Team
- Trump said “Coronavirus. And this is the new hoax. It’s going to disappear one day. It’s like a miracle. It will disappear. So far, we have lost nobody to coronavirus in the United States.”.
- Kudlow said “We have contained this, I won’t say air tight, but pretty close to air tight.”.
- McEnany said “This president will always put America first. He will always protect American citizens. We will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here. What is bad for America is good for Democrats. It’s incredible that they think this way. They root against the stock market and they root for this to take hold. They have a demented dream of taking down President Trump. It doesn’t matter how many Americans they destroy in order to get there.”.
Hannity said “Now we have some on the left, literally whipping this country into a frenzy, so I’m promoting extreme measures immediately. Close schools immediately. Daycare centers. Businesses.”.
Donald Trump reaction to increase in COVID-19 cases
But the very next day, Washington State reported the US’ first death from COVID-19. At the beginning of March, Trump toured the CDC and falsely claimed that anyone who wanted a test could get one. Trump said “Every one of these doctors said how do you know so much about this? Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.”
As the number of cases reported in the US passed 100, Trump acknowledged the epidemic in a somber and then televised address that night. Trump said “It only matters how you respond, and we are responding with great speed and professionalism. This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history.”
The government’s race to secure tests and medical equipment began on March 13th when Trump declared a national emergency. By this point, the US was months behind other countries. Trump announced social distancing guidelines on March 16th meant to last two weeks, but he wanted to roll them back earlier. His closest advisors argued with him saying it was unrealistic. He contradicted his own experts daily, sometimes within minutes. Trump said “We have stockpiled Hydroxychloroquine. I’ve always known this is a pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” Critics said he still was not taking the pandemic seriously.
By the beginning of April, South Korea emerged from isolation and was heading back to normal. Many businesses reopened. Even more restaurants and cafes were bustling. Meanwhile, in the United States, the virus was still spreading. The country was largely shut down and unemployment numbers hit record highs. The US was well on its way to leading the world in coronavirus cases, and yet the nation began to reopen through the summer and fall. If the US had managed to keep its death rate the same as South Korea’s, fewer than 3,000 people would have died by October 1. Instead, the death toll reached over 200,000. And on October 2, President Trump announced that he had contracted the virus.