America’s Global Health Incompetence

QUICK READ: “America is first in the world in deaths, first in the world in infections and we stand out as an emblem of global incompetence. The damage to America’s influence and reputation will be very hard to undo.” William Burns, head of the Carnegie Endowment.

There are journalists and there are writers. Sometimes a news story is so well researched and written it enflames the passion that things need to change and that failed leadership has cost us ALL dearly.

A story in this morning’s Financial Times paints a picture of failed leadership, incompetence, and damage that may be “hard to undo”. Here are some highlights of the story:

-In March, during a CDC visit Covid-19 had already passed the breakout point in the US. The contagion had been spreading for weeks in New York, Washington state and other clusters. The curve was pointing sharply upwards. Trump’s goal in Atlanta was to assert the opposite.

-What caught the media’s attention were two comments he made about the disease. There would be four million testing kits available within a week. “The tests are beautiful,” he said. “Anybody that needs a test gets a test.” Ten weeks later, that is still not close to being true. Fewer than 3 percent of Americans had been tested by mid-May. Trump also boasted about his grasp of science.

-The story that emerged is of a president who ignored increasingly urgent intelligence warnings from January, dismisses anyone who claims to know more than him and trusts no one outside a tiny coterie, led by his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner.

-Any signal that the US was bracing for a pandemic – including taking actual steps to prepare for it – was discouraged. “Jared [Kushner] had been arguing that testing too many people or ordering too many ventilators, would spook the markets and so we just shouldn’t do it,” says a Trump confidant who speaks to the president frequently.

The CDC has led the response to every disease for decades. Now it has vanished from view

-At some point, Congress is likely to establish a body like the 9/11 Commission to investigate Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Any report would probably conclude that tens of thousands of deaths could have been prevented – even now as Trump pushes to “liberate” states from lockdown.

-The CDC has been plagued by mishap and error throughout the crisis. The agency spent weeks trying to develop a jinxed test when it could simply have imported WHO-approved kits from Germany.

-On the CDC Trump’s stamp is clear. It was Trump who chose Robert Redfield to head the CDC in spite of widespread warnings about the former military officer’s controversial record. Redfield led the Pentagon’s response to HIV-Aids in the 1980s. It involved isolating suspected soldiers in so-called HIV Hotels. Many who tested positive were dishonorably discharged. Some committed suicide.

-A devout Catholic, Redfield saw Aids as the product of an immoral society. For many years, he championed a much-hyped remedy that was discredited in tests. That debacle led to his removal from the job in 1994.

-“Redfield is about the worst person you could think of to be heading the CDC at this time,” says Laurie Garrett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist who has reported on epidemics. “He lets his prejudices interfere with the science, which you cannot afford during a pandemic.”

-The president’s leap of faith, which was inspired by Fox News anchors, notably Laura Ingraham, and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, none of whom have a medical background, turned Washington’s bureaucracy upside down. Scientists who demurred were punished. In April, Rick Bright, the federal scientist in charge of developing a vaccine – arguably the most urgent role in government – was removed after blocking efforts to promote hydroxychloroquine.

-“I can’t even get my calls returned,” says Garrett. “The CDC has led the response to every disease for decades. Now it has vanished from view.”

-Republican states have received considerably more ventilators and personal protective equipment per capita than Democratic states, in spite of having far lower rates of hospitalization.

-One of the CDC’s constraints was to insist on developing its own test rather than import a foreign one. Dr. Anthony Fauci – the infectious disease expert and now a household name – is widely known to loathe Redfield, and vice versa. That meant the CDC and Fauci’s National Institutes of Health were not on the same page.

When I read this story I needed to take a blood pressure pill. We can’t sit back and throw up our hands to incompetence that is surely leading to deaths. To remain silent is to be complicit in this tragedy,