Could any other US president have done better with the pandemic?

As many of you may know, I’m active on Quora. I frequently answer questions about the Coronavirus pandemic. That’s not because I’m a virologist or a doctor. It’s because I can read and understand the medical literature and can explain it to others.

There are many questions that come up related to a central theme: We’ve seen what Trump has done in the context of the pandemic. Could others have done better? If Hillary had won, or if this had occurred during Barack Obama’s administration, would we have responded differently? Did Trump do anything that strengthened or weakened our response as a nation? In this post, I’ll provide insight, research links, and my conclusions.

Did anyone predict this pandemic? Who and when?

The idea of a pandemic causing havoc in the US is not new. It’s been the stuff of fiction and various novels for years. One particular novel inspired a president. Time Magazine goes on to tell the story:

“In April 1998, as a result of having read the Richard Preston novel, The Cobra Event, the president held a meeting with a group of scientists and Cabinet members to discuss the threat of bioterrorism,” the scholar Martha Crenshaw wrote in a 2006 terrorism-studies anthology. “The briefing impressed Clinton so much that he asked the experts to brief senior officials in DOD and HHS.”

“Crenshaw cites a May 21, 1998, Washington Post article noting that, while the U.S. had stockpiles of antibiotics for military troops, there was no such stash for civilians — and that some Washington officials “expressed surprise at how fast the president and his National Security Council staff had moved” to change that.

“By Oct. 21, 1998, Clinton signed into law a roughly $51 million budget for “for pharmaceutical and vaccine stockpiling activities at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

After 9/11, George W. Bush’s national security team decided that a bio-terror attack was a real possibility. He renamed and expanded the “strategic national stockpile” into eight warehouses placed around the country in secret locations containing not only medicine but Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and ventilators. While SARS got close to American shores in 2003, we dodged a bullet due to the quick action of the Chinese and Canadian public health authorities who stopped that epidemic from emerging worldwide.

When Barack Obama came into office, he was immediately put to the test. Swine flu broke out in the southwest US and northern Mexico. He called on the CDC to take the lead and they immediately set up testing and quarantine programs that undoubtedly saved tens of thousands of lives. The Strategic National Stockpile was used three times during Obama’s eight year tenure. Swine Flu, Ebola, and Zika.

Unfortunately, the Tea Party congress was unwilling to provide sufficient funding to completely restock the PPE in the stockpile. The funds that were allocated to maintaining the stockpile went to two initiatives: build new low-cost respirators and support small bio-tech firms that were producing antibiotics that would be necessary in the event of an outbreak of Avian Flu (seen as the most probable next threat).

The expectation of a new pandemic was so well understood that none other than Bill Gates warned the country is a now-fateful TED talk.

Why wasn’t America prepared for the pandemic?

We were actually prepared… in 2016.

After all, Bill Clinton built a strategic national stockpile of medical equipment to fight pandemics, and George W Bush expanded it into warehouses around the country to fight bio terrorism. Barack Obama added watchers in China and a state department program to help stop pandemics in their own country before they spread.

Then Donald Trump undid everything he could.

It’s startling that a single president, in his first term, could so effectively undo over twenty years of preparation.

Did Trump make us more prepared or less prepared

Trump put people into the White House who did not believe that a pandemic was going to arrive on our shores. They systematically dismantled America’s pandemic response systems.

Trump’s team:

  • Attended a meeting during the transition to the Trump administration on pandemic response by sending a low-level staffer. Trump and his senior staff skipped the meeting. It just wasn’t important.
  • Closed the White House Pandemic Response office and fired its staff
  • Kicked the CDC out of the National Security Council where Obama had placed it.
  • Defunded the State Department program designed to identify and stop epidemics in other countries from becoming pandemics like Ebola
  • Withdrew dozens of American Government officials from China where they were monitoring for the emergence of new epidemics like SARS
  • Fired the chief American scientist stationed in China for monitoring viruses that could emerge from wild animals like bats.
  • Ignored repeated warnings from the CDC and the National Security Council about the emerging situation in China.
  • Complimented China on the excellent job they were doing and sent seventeen tons of US-sourced PPE to China after the pandemic was already declared by the WHO
  • Downplayed the seriousness of the outbreak, refusing to follow CDC’s advice to begin preparations on January 23rd when the WHO announced a pandemic.
  • Insisted that cruise ship passengers be brought back to the US for quarantine by untrained personnel, not the CDC, with no protective gear, staying in local hotels and flying commercial flights without testing them
  • Ordered tens of thousands of US citizens to fly home from Europe where they were forced to be crowded together in airports waiting to be cleared by customs… spreading the infections among them.
  • Refused to coordinate national activities for the provisioning of supplies and equipment, relegating it to the various governors, and then competing with the governors to acquire the same supplies, often commandeering shipments in the middle of the night.
  • Delayed in calling for a national emergency and then refusing to use the power of his office to order American companies to manufacture needed supplies and equipment.
  • Refused to fund the only American factory that makes n95 masks to scale up operations.
  • Appointed Jared Kushner, an low level real estate developer and the president’s son-in-law, to address the shortage of testing kits, an effort that failed due to bumbling and lack of experience.
  • Released guidelines for opening the country back up after the shut down, and then promptly undercut the guidelines by agreeing with protesters who wanted to open up sooner.
  • Tried for weeks to hide and bury guidance from the CDC that provides detailed instructions for safety to the states and local governments, day care centers, schools, restaurants, health clubs, and other businesses.

Republican analysts have stated in public that Trump is behaving more like a saboteur than a president.

What about Trump blocking flights to China? Wasn’t that good enough?

Trump didn’t actually stop people from flying from China to the US. He stopped Chinese people from flying from China to the US. Americans were free to fly all they wanted. The virus didn’t seem to discriminate. Why should it? We are all human on the inside.

Does Trump understand that?

Could Barack Obama have handled the COVID-19 pandemic better?

We like to ponder, these days, whether the Coronavirus pandemic will end up as bad as the 1918 “Spanish” flu that killed 30 million people or more worldwide.

The 1918 pandemic flu was truly terrible. Swept in fast, killed without mercy.

Of course, 1918 was too early for electron microscopes and genome maps. For decades, scientists wondered “just which germ was it that killed so many people?”

We didn’t figure it out for eighty years. In 1997, a researcher dig up the body of an Alaskan native from a mass grave buried in permafrost. Her lungs were preserved and genetic testing proved, for the first time, that the 1918 pandemic flu was… a novel strain of H1N1 swine flu.

In 2009, from a North American factory farm, H1N1 came back. It was far more deadly than the seasonal flu but not as deadly as the 1918 strain. But it was the same disease.

Bet you don’t remember it, do you? We didn’t shut down the country. We didn’t all panic and start social distancing. Why?

Because Barack Obama contained it until a vaccine could be developed

H1N1 flu had re-emerged as an epidemic and Obama contained it by following the advice of the best immunologists, public health experts, and by working with governors in a coordinated effort. His administration kept it contained until a vaccine could be developed and the vaccine is now part of our regular flu shots.

He had only been president for a few months.


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