“I don’t take responsibility at all …”
— Donald Trump’s answer to a reporter asking if he feels any responsibility for his administration’s failure to provide COVID-19 tests.
Well, then, people. Here we are.
As long promised by scientists, a pandemic has arrived, triggered by a new virus humans have no immunity against. There is no vaccine. Infected people can spread this virus undetected because some carriers may show no symptoms.
Absent competent leadership from the Trump administration, it’s fallen on state and local governments, private businesses and employers, sports and entertainment organizations, schools, churches — and us — to accept responsibility for managing this crisis.
The America on display inside the White House during this public health meltdown is America at its worst. The response of communities at the pandemic’s forefront — that would be Washington state — is showcasing America at its best.
In the worst-case scenario, say medical researchers, 400 Washingtonians could die in the Seattle area alone by April 7. By mid-May, 60,000 Washingtonians could be infected. The infection rate may be doubling every six days. Last Sunday our state had 769 reported infections and 42 deaths.
We don’t really know how widespread this virus is. Unlike more far-sighted nations, we’ve been unable to test for it. Testing finally is ramping up, so infection numbers may quickly increase. Trevor Bedford, a computational biologist at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, calculates that 20,000 Americans are infected — 10 times the confirmed cases. His estimate range lies between 10,000 and 40,000 existing infections for a virus that likely first showed up on United States soil about Jan. 15, 2020.
On us all
The economically painful, personally inconvenient measures imposed by Gov. Jay Inslee are meant to “flatten the curve” of infection, drawing it out rather than allow it to quickly spike and disastrously overwhelm hospitals, as happened in Italy. This strategy is the only tool we have to avoid catastrophe. A vaccine is 18 months away, with luck.
So this one really is on each of us.
COVID-19 shows how unprepared our nation’s health care system is for pandemics. We lack beds, trained personnel, safety equipment to protect health workers and medical equipment to treat patients. There are nowhere near enough respiratory devices in our stockpiles.
It’s hardly as if no one saw this coming. Alarmed health experts long have warned that this country is dangerously unprepared for pandemics. But public health funding hasn’t been an urgent priority in Congress. State public health departments across the nation were hollowed out by budget cuts in 2008.
However, Washington’s taxpayers can thank themselves for funding a public health system that ranks among the nation’s finest. This state also has the good fortune of being home to a world-class medical research community. If you must endure a pandemic, this is a good place to do it.
But we require a federal government that understands viruses as potential threats to our national security and economy. But the need to invest in a pandemic-ready public health safety system was ignored when Trump in 2018 abolished the National Security Council’s Directorate for Global Health and Biodefense.
It was established after the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Its mission was to prevent, or manage, the next outbreak using a bio-surveillance network of 60 countries. It was designed to “galvanize resources to coordinate a robust and seamless domestic and global response,” according to its former director, Beth Cameron. “In a health security crisis, speed is essential.”
Ah, speed. Kudos to South Korea; its infection rate is dropping. It quickly began testing 10,000 people per day; our nation took seven weeks to test just 11,000.
Test kits mystery
The mystery of the lack of test kits remains unexplained. The hitherto respected Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) produced tests that didn’t work. Rather than accept tests readily available from the World Health Organization (WHO), the CDC distributed a second test of its own making that required a third, final step from CDC labs. This slowed things even more. And undoubtedly sickened and killed more people.
In 2003, after blunders during the SARS outbreak killed hundreds, the WHO was given responsibility for coordinating transnational response to pandemics. But now nations are ignoring WHO’s protocols for reporting information and coordinating responses. The organization lacks authority and funds to enforce its directives. For example, WHO advised countries not to ban international travel, arguing that it’s counter-productive. But 70 countries did it anyway, including ours: Trump blames Europeans for our infections.
The source of this outbreak, China, also is nearly the sole source of the world’s N95 masks and other critical medical emergency equipment. Surprise: China has refused to export masks and other medical equipment during this crisis.
Why has the United States stripped itself naked of the security protections inherent in producing its own essential medical emergency equipment? Hello?
China is an authoritarian command-and-control society. Nevertheless, it seems to lack enough command to eradicate the unhealthy relationship between humans and wild animals potentially loaded with deadly viruses that are freely sold in Chinese markets. But when COVID-19 erupted in Wuhan, China locked millions of people in their homes and built emergency hospitals in 10 days.
We’re a democracy. Such efficiency and blunt instruments of compliance lie beyond our grasp. Instead, it now falls on each of us to demonstrate that in a democracy, individuals exercising their own agency can defeat a grave public health threat.
Wash your hands.
Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.