A few days ago, on September 22, 2020, the United States of America after some nine months of grappling with the COVID-19 Pandemic reached the grim milestone of 200,000 deaths. Nearly seven million Americans have also suffered through the virus, many of them likely to go through life with issues related to their brief struggle with the infection. These numbers far outpace the number of cases and deaths expected by federal officials, and now, as cases are starting to tick upwards as students return to school and restrictions are lifted. As Europe faces the start of a second wave, the United Kingdom being particularly hard-hit, it is vital to understand why as of this writing the United States has had by far the worst response to COVID-19, and that while blame should be shared at all levels, the lion’s share belongs to President Donald Trump. He has since the start of the pandemic downplayed our outright hidden the impact of the virus on the American people, and according to a shocking interview taped by journalist Bob Woodward, admitted how serious the crisis was over a month before most of the country acted. Rather than putting into place a unified federal response, he allowed the individual fifty states to act in varying degrees while undercutting the deadliness of COVID-19 and spreading disinformation. His response has been a dereliction of duty, politicizing the crisis we face, and hiding the true threat of the virus at a time when the information was desperately needed. Had he enacted a true federal response, in the same way, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded during the Second World War on the home front, the deaths and overall cases in the United States would have plummeted, and 200,000 people would not be dead and we would not be facing the risk of a second wave.
The two tapes in question with Bob Woodward are particularly damning and showcases how Donald Trump’s actions in the first two months of the COVID-19 Pandemic were disastrous and are to this day the reason why the United States leads in cases and deaths per capita. In his first tape on February 7, 2020, Trump said that COVID-19 is “…more deadly than your, you know, your—even strenuous flus.” He added that “This is more deadly. This is five per—you know, this is five percent versus one percent and less than one percent, you know. So this is deadly stuff.” These comments were made at a time where the coronavirus was in its early stages of impacting the United States. Had he acted then, outside of his poorly managed travel ban from China the week prior, which exempted thousands of Chinese residents, the spread of the virus across the United States could have been mitigated, and far fewer than 200,000 Americans would have died. Instead, he downplayed the virus, saying in those early months that COVID-19 would vanish, leaving it to the individual state governments to act. He ignored the virus, and as a result we lacked a unified federal response as we had seen at times of war, and so all fifty states were left to their own devices in handling the virus.
In the second tape, which was recorded on March 19, 2020, Trump said that “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.” These tapes are damning because they do not just show that the President knew about this crisis and the deadly nature of the virus weeks before any shutdowns occurred, but that he deliberately downplayed the danger the American people faced. Leaders often do attempt to calm a situation down, but usually through rhetoric and leading by acting calm, not by misleading the public and holding back life-saving information. He committed what is akin to a physician not informing the patient of a potentially terminal diagnosis to prevent panic. Had the United States government acted similarly to the governments of Australia, Germany, and South Korea, up to 70% of the lives lost could have been saved through a national lockdown, a national mask mandate, and other key policies that these countries put into place before we even acted. These countries per capita had far fewer cases and deaths, while their leadership leveled with the people, and as a result, no panic ensued. The simple truth is that had Donald Trump in those early weeks acted decisively in the same way his counterparts did overseas, COVID-19 would have been far less deadly.
The lack of federal leadership meant that the responsibility for handling the virus was left up to the states. This meant that rather than having one unified response, there were fifty responses, all from governors who either believed the threat of the virus such as Andrew Cuomo of New York, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Jay Inslee of Washington, and Mike DeWine of Ohio, or those who similar to Donald Trump downplayed the threat like Ron DeSantis of Florida, Greg Abbott of Texas, and Brian Kemp of Georgia. Although the leadership which did handle the virus well in their states did suffer missteps, especially the disastrous policy of sending patients back to nursing homes, others simply failed at locking down in the first place. Kemp, for example, was not aware that asymptomatic people could spread the virus, and as a result, delayed his state’s more serious actions until weeks after other states like New York began to shut down. DeSantis, meanwhile, has suffered from extensive criticism for his failed response to the outbreak not just in his state, but within Florida’s prison system. An earlier and unified response in February 2020 would have meant that these missteps could have been avoided, and rather than operating independently as fifty states, the nation would have come together for a combined effort.
That effort could have looked similar to the United States of America’s efforts on the home front during the Second World War. In that conflict, Americans were forced to work together to fight a common threat. The federal government responded by establishing a bevy of new programs and committees to spearhead the war effort. A similar effort could have been made in the early months of the COVID-19 Pandemic. The War Production Board (WPB), for example, converted peacetime industries into wartime industries and distributed necessary resources to various industries. The Office of War Mobilization (OWM) coordinated the various agencies of the federal governments towards the goal of successfully managing the federal government’s actions during the Second World War. The War Manpower Commission (WMC), meanwhile, handled the growing need for labor in home front industries such as agriculture and other various industries. Similar programs could have been established in our response to COVID-19 by the federal government. A Pandemic Production Board (PPB) could have worked with private industry to increase the production of personal protective equipment, while an Office of Pandemic Mobilization (OPM) could have managed the wider federal response, and a Pandemic Manpower Commission (PMC) might have mitigated the unemployment issue by recruiting more people to work at hospitals or produce necessary supplies to combat the virus. A massive federal response to a crisis has a basis in our history, and could easily have been replicated in 2020, but instead, the federal government left it to the states to manage the crisis.
Instead, Trump politicized the virus at the earliest opportunity. He has continually rebuked guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with the White House even asking that organization to remove information with which he disagreed. In other instances, he pushed unproven therapies that have been disproven by scientists to be effective against COVID-19 and has personally ignored guidance on wearing masks or even having people at his often indoor political rallies ignore guidance from their states on masks and social distancing, and outright breaking state laws. Worst, he has spoken of the virus in terms of “Red State” and “Blue State” and earlier this month suggested that if you take out all of the deaths and infections from Democratic states, the United States handled the virus well. This is disturbing in that it denigrates the lives of people who live in these states and implies that Trump only sees the country in people who support him or oppose him. That is not to mention that what he said is not even true, and that in counting Republican states the United States still would have had one of the worst responses in the world. He even early on in the response to the virus urged his supporters to “liberate” their states from measures put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19. Not only has he lacked leadership in the handling of the virus, but he has even undermined the states who are working to resolve the crisis.
The response to the COVID-19 Pandemic was a failure on the part of President Donald Trump, and as a result the year 2020 will be associated with the destruction that virus brought to the United States. Over 200,000 Americans are dead, while hundreds of thousands more now will suffer life-long issues during their fight with the virus. This event is now as of September 2020 the fourth deadliest in American history, only behind the American Civil War’s 750,000 deaths, the 1918 Influenza Pandemic’s 675,000 deaths, and the Second World War’s 400,000 deaths. An earlier and more organized response by the United States federal government and Donald Trump could have greatly mitigated the loss of life had it been more comparable to countries such as Germany, Australia, and South Korea, or even our own actions on the home front during the Second World War. The recently released tapes from Bob Woodward show that he knew the threat the United States faced, and yet downplayed it and held back vital life-saving information, and had he acted with this knowledge, the tragedy of the last year could have been avoided. Instead, the virus is still infecting our cities and states, and with a second wave now hitting Europe despite their strong measures, we now must face the fact that our leader’s failed actions will cost even more lives and add to the already disastrous body count.