When it comes to defining the word inept, or botched modern dictionaries will only need to refer users to the name Donald Trump. When future White Houses study how to make for a sure-footed and orderly process for achieving a desired end they will only need to review the Trump term in office to know what not to do.
In Friday’s New York Times the page one above-the-fold-must-read-story took readers into the maddening world of Trump showing how small we knew him to be. In a two-page spread inside the paper, we learned how low on the radar this public health crisis was within the West Wing.
Efforts by his aides to persuade him to promote mask wearing, among the simplest and most effective ways to curb the spread of the disease, were derailed by his conviction that his political base would rebel against anything that would smack of limiting their personal freedom. Even his own campaign’s polling data to the contrary could not sway him.
His explicit demand for a vaccine by Election Day — a push that came to a head in a contentious Oval Office meeting with top health aides in late September — became a misguided substitute for warning the nation that failure to adhere to social distancing and other mitigation efforts would contribute to a slow-rolling disaster this winter.
But Mr. Trump’s unwillingness to put aside his political self-centeredness as Americans died by the thousands each day or to embrace the steps necessary to deal with the crisis remains confounding even to some administration officials. “Making masks a culture war issue was the dumbest thing imaginable,” one former senior adviser said.
His own bout with Covid-19 in early October left him extremely ill and dependent on care and drugs not available to most Americans, including a still-experimental monoclonal antibody treatment, and he saw firsthand how the disease coursed through the White House and some of his close allies.
Yet his instinct was to treat that experience not as a learning moment or an opportunity for empathy, but as a chance to portray himself as a Superman who had vanquished the disease. His own experience to the contrary, he assured a crowd at the White House just a week after his hospitalization, “It’s going to disappear; it is disappearing.”
But also on page one above the fold was this sobering accounting of what is happening as the vaccines are being sent to places across the country.
In Florida, less than one-quarter of delivered coronavirus vaccines have been used, even as older people sat in lawn chairs all night waiting for their shots. In Puerto Rico, last week’s vaccine shipments did not arrive until the workers who would have administered them had left for the Christmas holiday. In California, doctors are worried about whether there will be enough hospital staff members to both administer vaccines and tend to the swelling number of Covid-19 patients.
And critically, public health experts say, federal officials have left many of the details of the final stage of the vaccine distribution process, such as scheduling and staffing, to overstretched local health officials and hospitals.
In one notable blunder, 42 people in Boone County, W.Va., who were scheduled to receive the coronavirus vaccine on Wednesday instead were mistakenly injected with an experimental monoclonal antibody treatment.
Trump had told the nation in March that he was a “wartime president”.
I do, I actually do, I’m looking at it that way,” Trump told reporters during a press briefing at the White House when asked whether he considered the U.S. to be on a wartime footing. “I look at it, I view it as, in a sense, a wartime president. I mean, that’s what we’re fighting.”
The pandemic might be viewed as a war, but Trump has proved not to be a general. In fact, based on his performance he would not even be a private. A withering editorial today put the failure over the vaccination issue into language that no one in the West Wing would not be able to comprehend. The trouble is they just simply do not care to act on behalf of the American public.
Operation Warp Speed has failed to come anywhere close to its original goal of vaccinating 20 million people against the coronavirus by the end of 2020. Of the 14 million vaccine doses that have been produced and delivered to hospitals and health departments across the country, just an estimated three million people have been vaccinated. The rest of the lifesaving doses, presumably, remain stored in deep freezers — where several million of them could well expire before they can be put to use.
That’s an astonishing failure — one that stands out in a year of astonishing failures. The situation is made grimmer by how familiar the underlying narrative is: Poor coordination at the federal level, combined with a lack of funding and support for state and local entities, has resulted in a string of avoidable missteps and needless delays. We have been here before, in other words. With testing. With shutdowns. With contact tracing. With genomic surveillance.
Whatever the solutions are to the vaccine challenge, the root problem is clear. Officials have long prioritized medicine (in this instance, developing the coronavirus vaccines) while neglecting public health (i.e., developing programs to vaccinate people). It’s much easier to get people excited about miracle shots, produced in record time, than about a dramatic expansion of cold storage, or establishment of vaccine clinics, or adequate training of doctors and nurses. But it takes all of these to stop a pandemic.