Leadership in a public health crisis

The 2020 Coronavirus pandemic is the biggest public health crisis of the 21st century — at least thus far. The highly contagious virus is affecting the world economy, and the health and livelihoods of many people on earth. Governments across the globe are in crisis management mode in dealing with the pandemic. Some have shown remarkable resilience and achieved great success in trying to flatten the curve of the virus’ spread in their countries. Some, on the other hand, are failing completely to properly address the spread of the virus.

China and South Korea have been examples of successful attempts at managing the virus’s spread. European governments such as Germany have also shown good progress. The Netherlands reported today that the virus spread is starting to slow in that country, after the measures they implemented began to show progress. Italy, Iran and Spain are currently overwhelmed with the crisis. In Spain, the government led by Pedro Sanchez is unable to unite the country, mostly because the regions in Spain failed to agree with Madrid on how to proceed in dealing with the virus.

Moving across the pond from Europe, Donald Trump and his administration have shown gross negligence in dealing with the pandemic. State governors such as Mike DeWine of Ohio and Andrew Cuomo of New York demonstrated better leadership abilities than the President, which indicates his incapacities in leadership during a national crisis. Trump even demanded that Vice President Pence not call governors who are not “appreciative” of the efforts of the Trump administration. On March 27th, after intense public pressure, Trump finally invoked the Defense Production Act to compel private companies to build ventilators.

Trump has denied personal responsibility for the virus’s unchecked spread in the U.S. He has refused to address the virus as the “coronavirus,”  insisting on calling it the “Chinese virus.” And he even bungled a question on what he would say to Americans who are scared, calling the journalist who asked the question a “bad reporter.” He flipped-flopped through the issue, and in the process somehow shifted the blame again to the Chinese. He also provided misleading medical advice to the country by suggesting that malarial drugs are capable of beating the virus. He contradicted health experts, both within his own administration and outside of it. As a result, as of March 27,th the United States is now number one in the world in confirmed coronavirus cases.

Trump’s handling of the coronavirus contrasts sharply when compared to the actions taken by President Obama during the 2009 swine flu pandemic. Besides the swine flu, Obama and his administration also managed to keep the Ebola virus at bay in 2014. 

Let’s have a look at what President Obama did, and then compare it to the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus.

Obama’s Response to the Swine Flu and Ebola

The H1N1 swine flu case in 2009 recently reentered the news cycle after President Trump falsely accused President Obama of complicating the CDC’s ability to develop a testing system. Trump also falsely claimed that Obama declared the swine flu a public health emergency months after cases appeared in the United States.

That was not the case. Obama declared the swine flu a public health emergency in April 2009, after just twenty cases had emerged. And in October 2009, Obama declared the swine flu a national emergency. The swift response from his administration, coupled  with efficient public communication from his White House, demonstrated Obama’s capable leadership for the country during the pandemic, projecting confidence and effectiveness to the American people.

While Obama undeniably provided a solid response and strong leadership, the biggest challenge remains the healthcare infrastructure of the United States. Vaccine development in 2009 was a huge problem, and the government failed in managing people’s expectations. Officials believed that millions of vaccines would be available in the summer of 2009. The reality was the vaccine was not available until autumn 2009. Two former US Senators wrote that the United States failed to “nurture the technologies and systems needed” to develop a vaccine, relying instead on  outdated technology. Further problems related to diagnostic systems and disease surveillance programs that failed to properly portray the number of transmissions and infections. The pandemic in 2009 also exposed the fragility of American hospitals, as they were pushed close to their limits in dealing with the swine flu.

In an article published in 2010, the New York Times declared the government’s response to be “apt and lucky.” The biggest lesson for us to learn from Obama is to manage people’s expectations better. The article highlighted the Center for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC) response to fighting misinformation, and the federal government’s “relatively cautious decisions” that “contained the pandemic with minimal disruption to the economy.”

The Center for Strategic and International Studies published a report in 2010 in the aftermath of the swine flu pandemic, warning that future governments must learn from their short-comings in dealing with the swine flu. The article stated that “when the next flu pandemic breaks out… they too will hope that the U.S. has built upon its successes in 2009—and learned from its failures.”

The other potential health crisis that occurred during Obama’s presidency was the Ebola virus. When that virus broke out in West Africa in 2014, Obama reacted swiftly by sending rapid response units to affected patients in the United States, and also by sending the military to West Africa to assist in building treatment centers. He treated the outbreak as a threat to global security.

Obama’s response also included airport screenings, the creation of Ebola treatment centers and testing labs, education of healthcare workers on how to isolate and identify Ebola symptoms, and the development of Ebola vaccines.

Trump Response to the Coronavirus

Compared to President Obama, Trump’s response has been undeniably ineffective. His administration did not heed the lessons learned in 2009, and in the far less-severe Ebola virus in 2014.

When the United States reported 15 cases on February 15th, 2020, Trump trivialized the virus because of the small number of infections. While his administration did declare the coronavirus a public health emergency, Trump himself continued to minimize its potential dangers. He created a task force led by Mike Pence in late February, and declared a national emergency in March 2020. Unfortunately, he did not use the powers vested in the presidency for a national emergency. Two weeks elapsed before he invoked the Defense Production Act, then compelling GM to create ventilators.

Trump also picked fights with state governors who are busy dealing with the outbreaks in their states. He reportedly told Pence not to return calls from governors who were begging for ventilators, if they had not previously been sufficiently “appreciative” to him. While cooperation between the federal and state governments is now more important than ever, it appeared from the outset that the federal government was doing little to help.

Coronavirus Response: Recommended Action

If we learned anything from the swine flu pandemic and Ebola, the most important aspect of combating a virus is in first identifying and isolating it. With respect to the coronavirus, the proper response is to immediately increase testing capabilities that would enable millions to be tested quickly. South Korea is the model to follow. They introduced massive testing capabilities early on, quarantining those who were positive, and aggressively tracking down people who had had contact with positive patients.

Combining the South Korean model of aggressive testing and quarantining positive patients, with social distancing efforts, countries across the globe can flatten the curve of the virus. It is important for the citizens and government to cooperate with each other and follow guidelines created by the government. In some cases, the clearest directions come from state governors and regional-level administrations. In the United States for example, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and New York’s Andrew Cuomo have been receiving praise for their efforts in dealing with the virus in their states much better than the efforts made in Washington D.C. In Italy, mayors in affected areas are also doing their part in reassuring citizens and being strict in enforcing quarantine measures. 

As for President Trump, he needs to manage expectations better. Wanting to open the country by Easter is not a recommended course of action by any medical expert. He needs to be led by science, as Obama was, and not by his own instincts. While he has finally invoked the Defense Production Act, he has not used it for all that it can provide and that the country needs right now. It is needed not only to create ventilators, but also to create infrastructure for testing purposes. That has still not been done.

Finest Hour

For many Americans, the coronavirus has brought out the best in them. Communities have truly displayed their value, and many have together helped people adjust to the new realities. It can truly be said that this is their finest hour. As long as citizens observe quarantine measures and follow government guidelines, there is hope that America can really flatten the curve.

The outpouring of mutual support and togetherness should provide encouragement for many Americans — in pulling together to ultimately defeat the coronavirus.