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The Unprepared States of America

There were many earlier warnings that the U.S. was ill-prepared for this.
Donald Trump

The president has repeatedly defended his administration’s coronavirus response by saying that no one could have seen the pandemic coming. As usual, that’s not true. The president received intelligence reports in January and February that warned him of how bad the outbreak could be:

Intelligence agencies “have been warning on this since January,” said a U.S. official who had access to intelligence reporting that was disseminated to members of Congress and their staffs as well as to officials in the Trump administration, and who, along with others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive information.

“Donald Trump may not have been expecting this, but a lot of other people in the government were — they just couldn’t get him to do anything about it,” this official said. “The system was blinking red.”

The president was told about how severe the outbreak might be, but he did not believe what he was being told. We have often seen how the president dismisses the findings of intelligence agencies when their reports conflict with his ignorant preconceived notions or his short-term self-interest. If they tell him that Iran is complying with the JCPOA, he ignores the information and insists that Iran has been cheating. When they tell him that Mohamed bin Salman was responsible for ordering Khashoggi’s murder, he dismisses the conclusion and helps cover up for the crown prince. More generally, Trump makes a habit of denying facts when they are inconvenient or embarrassing to acknowledge, and he makes things up that never happened to make it seem as if his failures are actually successes. He insists against all evidence that North Korea has committed to disarm because it flatters him to pretend that this happened. A president who is constantly at war with the truth and engaged in shameless self-promotion at every turn is not going to respond well to reports of an impending disaster, and then when the disaster strikes he will respond by misleading the public about what is happening.

Even now that the pandemic is here and spreading throughout the country, the president is reluctant to take necessary actions to combat it:

President Trump and his advisers have resisted calls from congressional Democrats and a growing number of governors to use a federal law that would mobilize industry and provide badly needed resources against the coronavirus spread, days after the president said he would consider using that authority.

Mr. Trump has given conflicting signals about the Defense Production Act since he first said on Wednesday that he was prepared to invoke the law, which was passed by Congress at the outset of the Korean War and grants presidents extraordinary powers to force American industries to ensure the availability of critical equipment.

Despite Trump’s desire to portray himself as a “wartime president,” his response remains as dilatory as ever. It is not surprising that the president who has routinely invoked non-existent national security emergencies to impose tariffs or evade Congressional scrutiny on arms sales is completely useless when it comes to a real emergency.

A pandemic like this one was not only foreseeable, it was foreseen. There were many earlier warnings that the U.S. was ill-prepared for it. Just last year, the Department of Health and Human Services conducted an exercise to simulate how a pandemic might spread across the country, and their scenario was uncannily prescient:

That scenario, code-named “Crimson Contagion” and imagining an influenza pandemic, was simulated by the Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services in a series of exercises that ran from last January to August.

The simulation’s sobering results — contained in a draft report dated October 2019 that has not previously been reported — drove home just how underfunded, underprepared and uncoordinated the federal government would be for a life-or-death battle with a virus for which no treatment existed.

The draft report, marked “not to be disclosed,” laid out in stark detail repeated cases of “confusion” in the exercise. Federal agencies jockeyed over who was in charge. State officials and hospitals struggled to figure out what kind of equipment was stockpiled or available. Cities and states went their own ways on school closings.

The findings of the report did not lead to any major changes or improvements to the government’s preparedness. In addition to this administration’s specific failings, the government’s lack of readiness to cope with a pandemic is a systemic failure that comes from devoting too few resources and paying too little attention to a serious threat. There were plenty of warnings, but no one in a position to make necessary changes was taking those warnings seriously:

But the planning and thinking happened many layers down in the bureaucracy. The knowledge and sense of urgency about the peril appear never to have gotten sufficient attention at the highest level of the executive branch or from Congress, leaving the nation with funding shortfalls, equipment shortages and disorganization within and among various branches and levels of government.

The shortage of protective equipment across the country is the most obvious and alarming example of how the government’s unpreparedness is putting our doctors and nurses at great risk. The failure to build up a sufficient stockpile of N95 masks is an indictment of our government’s priorities. Our government has wasted trillions on unnecessary wars and hundreds of billions on boondoggles that serve no purpose, but somehow it could not be bothered to spend a relative pittance to ensure that there were enough respirators in the event of a pandemic. Tyler Rogoway comments:

The defense budget for the 2020 Fiscal Year is $738 billion. Funding the larger intelligence and national security ecosystem costs many billions of dollars in addition to this sum. This is money being spent in the name of protecting the American people. For a country that can spend that type of treasure on weapons and warfighting infrastructure, it is downright astonishing that it can’t keep a stockpile of cheap respirators around, or at least guarantee the domestic production base to rapidly build more, in order to fight a pandemic that was not only far from unthinkable, it was inevitable. This simple fact alone should make you furious and question the priorities of the U.S. government and those who are tasked with presiding over it.

The N95 respirator is not a high-tech piece of equipment. Far from it. They are disposable masks that, when fitted and worn properly, offer a reliable barrier against a number of things, including viruses. They are considered as essential for healthcare workers who treat patients with infectious diseases that can be transmitted through droplets of bodily fluids, offering them some certainty that they themselves will not end up contracting the patient’s illness. As such, they are absolutely critical to fighting a pandemic just like the one we are experiencing. In other words, they are just as important to keeping the American public safe as combat aircraft or a fighting ship.

In a very real sense, essential medical equipment like this is far more important to the safety and security of Americans than this expensive military hardware. The U.S. is very good at being able to project power and inflict death and destruction on distant lands, but when it comes to investing in the most basic preparations to protect the health and lives of its own citizens at home it comes up woefully short.

It has been obvious for a long time that the vast majority of our military budget has little or nothing to do with defending this country. Politicians and policymakers have spent decades exaggerating distant, manageable threats to justify unnecessary and costly interventions, and at the same time they neglected to prepare the country for the very real and immediate threat that we now face. When it comes to providing for real national defense against a threat like a pandemic, the government has shortchanged us. There are many Americans that are going to get sick and there are some that will die when that could have been prevented through better preparation.



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