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The Pandemic and the Presidency

Byy On

In early January 2018, Bill Clinton’s science adviser Neal F. Lane and I published a New York Times opinion column titled, “The President’s Disdain for Science,” which began, “Since World War II, no American president has shown greater disdain for science — or more lack of awareness of its likely costs.” That statement has proved prophetic. But we had little idea then of the horrendous human consequences of that disdain: the thousands of American lives lost and millions of livelihoods shattered.

Now the number of confirmed coronavirus cases exceeds seven million, or over 2 percent of the U.S. population. Deaths in the United States have passed 200,000, and total federal outlays — not including state and local costs — exceed $3 trillion. Over 14 million remain out of work despite a booming stock market. A large percentage of those dreadful numbers should be laid at this president’s feet.

The May 2018 dissolution of the National Security Council’s global health security team left the administration rudderless in confronting the coronavirus outbreak. And the flailing, chaotic U.S. response that has occurred since January has shown little respect for scientific expertise. In spite of including Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci on it, politicians have dominated the White House Coronavirus Task Force from the outset. The consequences have been predictable.

As he has done at other U.S. agencies, the president has tried to gut the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with budget cuts and a hiring freeze that left hundreds of positions vacant — many of which affected public health and infectious disease research. Exasperated scientists retired or departed for more rewarding jobs in academia and industry.

It is no wonder, then, that “the rollout of a CDC-designed test kit to state and local labs [became] a fiasco because it contained a faulty reagent,” according to Science magazine. That unconscionable testing lapse, which took over a month to diagnose and rectify, cost thousands of American lives. And the once-vaunted U.S. public-health system has been playing catch-up ever since, while community spread of the new coronavirus became rampant in many locales.

Since March, when it sought scientific analyses of airborne coronavirus transmission, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has been ominously silent — or perhaps silenced. From what I have learned, its director (and nominally the president’s science adviser) Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier has not been much of a factor in pandemic-response deliberations. The coronavirus task force, which included him only in early March, has been scrambling erratically about like a beheaded chicken, frantically seeking stopgap remedies.

The FDA’s objectivity has been severely threatened.

One idea the president touted, use of hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 prevention and treatment, received emergency authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), only to be withdrawn weeks later as countervailing scientific evidence mounted. Fortunately, the FDA declined to approve ingesting common disinfectants like bleach. More recently, the president has been trying to corrupt that agency’s science-based approval process for COVID-19 treatments and coronavirus vaccines. The FDA’s objectivity has been severely threatened.

But the most terrible impact of Trump’s gross mismanagement of the pandemic came this spring and summer, when he urged governors to reopen their states prematurely from their March lockdowns, in desperate hopes of restarting the U.S. economy and refloating his plunging re-election prospects. In what can only be called foolhardy, he at first tweeted that this could occur by Easter, April 12. And he ridiculed the wearing of masks in states that reopened early.

Despite almost unanimous warnings from epidemiologists and public-health officials against reopening prematurely, Republican governors of Arizona, Florida, Texas and other southern and western states followed the president’s ill-considered urgings in late April and early May, with disastrous results. Within weeks, COVID-19 cases surged back with a vengeance, followed by the inevitable summer surge (which we can call the “Trump Surge,” see graph) in hospitalizations and tens of thousands of additional, needless deaths.

Daily C-19 Cases.
Daily COVID-19 Cases for selected nations. Note US ‘Trump Surge’ in late July. Click to enlarge.

Comparisons of the U.S. pandemic performance with that of Germany are revealing. Led by Chancellor Angela Merkel — a quantum chemist by training — that nation has a robust public-health system with extensive testing and contact tracing, and nearly universal medical care. By mid-January it had developed and begun distributing one of the first novel coronavirus tests in the world.

Consequently, Germany has so far experienced just 113 deaths per million citizens, compared to more than five times that many in the United States. Had we had a similar death rate, we would have experienced just over 37,000 COVID-19 deaths instead of an official count over 201,000. The resulting 164,000 difference can be attributed to this administration’s omissions and failures.

A closer-to-home comparison, culturally and geographically, is to Canada, which has so far experienced 246 COVID-19 deaths per million. Applied to the United States, that ratio translates to about 81,000 deaths, or 120,000 fewer than have perished here.

Cumulative C-19 deaths
Cumulative COVID-19 deaths for selected nations. Click to enlarge.

This is what should be called “American carnage.” Over a thousand of our fellow citizens per day were tragically dying from COVID-19 this summer — versus three to seven per day in Canada and Germany. “They are dying, that’s true,” Trump admitted in an August 3 Axios interview. “It is what it is.”

This is the callous response of a self-absorbed “leader” who cannot understand cause and effect — especially not when he is the principal cause. Instead, he wages an unending war on objective truth, trying to drown the U.S. public in confusion, as in a recent harsh attack on CDC Director Robert Redfield.

Through his actions and inactions, our self-exalted president can thus be legitimately deemed responsible for well over half of all U.S. coronavirus deaths. With just over 4 percent of the global population, the United States leads the world in confirmed COVID-19 cases and has suffered by far the most deaths due to the disease, more than 21 percent of the world’s total. For such an advanced, technologically sophisticated country, this dismal performance is a disgrace.

It’s time to proclaim that our evidence-averse, wannabe emperor has no clothes.

This is not just mismanagement; it is gross malfeasance. And after Bob Woodward’s revelation that Trump recognized COVID-19’s severity in February, some would call it criminal negligence. The CEO of a publicly traded corporation performing so abominably would have been dispatched long ago. But nearly all Republican senators refused to do that when given the chance early this year.

So it is high time to proclaim that our evidence-averse, wannabe emperor has no clothes. His administration is undoubtedly responsible for over a hundred thousand U.S. deaths — more than occurred in the Korean and Vietnam Wars combined.

Our grieving nation desperately needs an intelligent, compassionate president and an administration that shows “fidelity to facts and logic” (to quote Barack Obama), in which science returns to its former place at the policymaking table. Until that happens, and we banish the current White House occupants, the nation will continue to suffer the appalling consequences of atrocious leadership.

References Cited

Neal F. Lane and Michael Riordan, “The President’s Disdain for Science,” New York Times (5 January 2018), p A27. Published online 4 January 2018.

Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker, “Coronavirus Pushes Trump to Rely on Experts He Has Long Maligned,” Washington Post (27 February 2020).

Jon Cohen, “The United States Badly Bungled Coronavirus Testing — But Things May Soon Improve,” Science (28 February 2020).

Sheri Fink and Mike Baker, “Coronavirus May Have Spread in U.S. for Weeks, Gene Sequencing Suggests,” New York Times (1 March 2020).

The Editorial Board, “Politicizing Medical Science Will Cost American Lives,” New York Times (24 August 2020).

Michael D. Shear, et al., “Inside Trump’s Failure: The Rush to Abandon Leadership Role on the Virus,” New York Times (18 July 2020).

Mattathias Schwartz, “The Axios Interview Showed Us an Important Threshold for the President,” The New York Times Magazine (19 August 2020).

Other Good References

James Fallows, “The Three Weeks That Changed Everything,” The Atlantic (29 June 2018).

Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker, “The Real Threat to National Security: Deadly Disease,” New York Times (24 March 2017).

Ed Yong, “The Big Story: How the Virus Won,” The Atlantic (13 August 2020).

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