President Donald Trump has called the safety and security of the American people his "highest obligation." During his first year in office, he vowed that he would "never forget that my responsibility is to keep you, the American people, safe and free.”
Now, with more than 100,000 Americans dead from the coronavirus epidemic and large sectors of the economy on life support, it's time to assess whether the president has lived up to his obligation and responsibility.
The inescapable conclusion is that he has not. Some disarray is inevitable during a rapidly evolving crisis, and COVID-19 is the worst health crisis the world has faced in a century. But Trump has compounded the damage by undermining his administration's scientists, heralding a risky antimalarial drug as a potential coronavirus game changer, ruminating about injecting patients with disinfectants, promoting magical thinking about the virus disappearing, and refusing to lead by example by wearing a mask in public.
Consider these three metrics:
COVID-19 deaths, delays, deficiencies
►The deaths. A novel, highly contagious virus unleashed on the world is a daunting challenge for any leader. But America — despite the advantages of being the world's richest and most powerful nation, with the most advanced health care and annual medical expenditures exceeding $3.5 trillion — has suffered by far the largest number of known fatalities. With 4% of the global population, the United States has 28% of the world's reported coronavirus deaths.
On a per capita basis, America ranks 10th among nations for coronavirus deaths, but it's first among those with populations of more than 100 million. In barely three months, America has lost enough of its people to COVID-19 to fill its largest college football stadiums.
Trump argues that other countries such as China simply undercount, which might be true. But so dramatic is the U.S. fatality rate that, mathematically, China would have to have 400,000 uncounted bodies to even come close.
As an added cruelty, countless grieving families cannot see or touch their coronavirus-infected loved ones in their last moments because the virus so easily spreads, particularly in institutional settings such as nursing homes. Hardest hit areas of America turned into charnel houses where mortuaries overflowed and crematories ran around the clock.
U.S. brand of economic wreckage
►The delays. Nations across the world afflicted with COVID-19 outbreaks have avoided the U.S. brand of economic wreckage, where unemployment is rivaling levels last seen in the Great Depression. Countries such as Australia, Germany and South Korea have jobless rates in low- to mid-single digits, and share one characteristic: Their leaders moved quickly and smartly to ramp up testing and gird their people and health care systems for outbreaks.
Not Trump. As early as Jan. 3, his administration received its first formal notification about the outbreak of a novel virus in China. Scientists, the CIA, epidemiologists and national security aides raised warnings in the following weeks. The head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, Rick Bright, warned of perilous equipment and testing shortages. "We are in deep s---," a medical supply executive told him. When Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told the president on Jan. 30 that a pandemic could unfold, according to The New York Times, Trump called him "alarmist" and continued publicly dismissing the threat.
The president did impose a travel ban on China, which might have bought time by limiting the influx of infected individuals, particularly to the West Coast. But he squandered it by continuing to downplay the danger and provide false information about the availability of testing.
Trump wouldn't urge Americans to begin social distancing until mid-March. By then, the coronavirus had spread so widely that the nation had to go into lockdown, and the economy into free fall, to prevent the toll from soaring toward 1 million and beyond. A Columbia University study showed that if social distancing had been imposed just one week earlier, 36,000 American lives might have been saved.
►The deficiencies. When the administration finally acted, it was with stunning incompetence. A pandemic response office in the White House had previously been reorganized. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, once the epidemiological envy of the world, bungled creation of a coronavirus test, and its leading infectious disease experts were sidelined. A federal acquisition effort got into bidding wars with states over scant personal protective equipment and testing materials. And a fumbling Agricultural Department allowed tens of millions of pounds of produce to rot in the fields while food banks were scrambling for supplies.
Nearly five months into 2020, the president continues to claim vast authority while shuffling responsibility off to state and local officials. Even as Trump pushes for reopening businesses, schools and churches, the nation lacks the sort of comprehensive testing, tracing and isolating framework that public health officials say is needed to suppress outbreaks until there's a vaccine or cure.
Americans can rightly be proud of the actions they've taken and sacrifices they've made to protect themselves, their families and their neighbors. These actions have flattened the curve and prevented an awful toll from being even worse. Front-line health care workers have performed heroically, and at great personal risk, to save lives. These successes have largely come in spite of presidential leadership, not because of it.
The office of Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the White House Coronavirus Task Force, declined to provide an opposing view to this editorial.
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