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Trump’s COVID catastrophe

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There is a certain Savvy contrarian narrative emerging that Trump’s COVID performance, while not good, hasn’t really been that bad, and nor has the American response overall [if you carefully cherry pick your comparative cases and arbitrarily exclude many of the greatest successes.] As Wilkinson argues, however, that infected dog don’t hunt:

It’s significant that Douthat’s column doesn’t mention testing even once. But his argument simply falls apart once you focus on it. 

First of all, “pre-emptive, creative, and draconian steps” were not necessary to suppress the virus. There was nothing “preemptive” about Taiwan, South Korea, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand’s implementation of TTSI, other than the fact that they had a “playbook” and were ready to put it into action. Their response therefore wasn’t especially “creative.” Early and aggressive testing and contact tracing is a tried and true strategy. That’s why it is in their playbooks. That’s why it is in our playbook, which the Trump administration completely ignored.

The fact that the United States’ Center for Disease Control has long been the world’s leader in research, knowledge, experience, and capacity for the control of communicable diseases is important. A number of the public health authorities in the countries that succeeded in using TTSI to suppress the virus have mentioned that they have modeled themselves after the CDC. Shouldn’t we consider countries that aspired to become America’s peers in disease control — that owe their success in controlling Covid-19 in part because they modeled themselves after the CDC — as the relevant set of peer-countries? Yes, we should. 

Not only have most of these countries looked to us for leadership in disease control for decades, none of them are wealthier than the U.S. And none but Germany comes even close to the U.S. in terms of medical research, innovation, drug development and medical manufacturing. You don’t need to believe in American exceptionalism to see that, until Trump came along, America truly was exceptional in terms of its capacity for a huge pandemic control push.

Trump was not called to greatness. He wasn’t even called to above-average competence. He was called to implement a game-plan we’d already written with a disease control bureaucracy that was the envy of the world, the administrative infrastructure and personnel of the world’s most dominant and powerful state, and a practically bottomless well of resources. (None of our peer countries has the massive advantage of minting the world’s reserve currency.) If Trump had merely said, “Tell me what to do!,” had done it, and otherwise had stayed out of the way, I believe it’s almost certain that at least 100,000 dead Americans would now be alive.

But Trump didn’t just fail to do what needed to be done. He didn’t just refuse to do what needed to be done. He actively and aggressively undermined both federal and state efforts to contain the virus. For example, he abruptly ended U.S. cooperation with China on disease surveillance. We could have had a much clearer picture of what was coming, which would have allowed us to gear up and contain community spread before it got out of control, but we didn’t. Trump inexplicably hollowed out our global public health presence before the pandemic, and kept doing it throughout. And he contradicted and undermined his own administration’s pandemic control authorities at every turn, wreaking havoc on the federal government’s immense capacity to respond. If he’d done nothing at all, many thousands of Americans would still be alive. 

Plenty more at the link, all of it devastating. Another critical takeaway here is that contrary to what too many people continue to assert it was not necessary to have a months-long total “lockdown” to suppress the virus; many countries have done so without one, but to do so requires testing and tracing. Trump, needless to say, opposed this because he sees COVID as a PR problem, and even when testing increased in the US it focused on testing people who were already symptomatic, which is much less valuable for prevention.

A competent leader — not an extraordinary one, a modestly competent one — could gave save tens of thousands of lives, at least, while also bringing many more American lives closer to “normalcy.” Trump, alas, would need the James Webb telescope so see modest competence, and so here we are.

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