President Donald Trump and his team spent the first night of the Republican National Convention trying to gaslight America on Covid-19 — claiming that Trump “took decisive action to save lives.” In reality, Trump didn’t just fail to address the coronavirus pandemic, he actively made it worse.
I spent the better part of the past few weeks talking to experts about why the US failed on Covid-19. I expected to hear a lot about federalism, individualism, and underfunded public health systems. But experts pushed back: Those things likely played a role, sure, but they emphasized that what makes the US truly unique is Trump.
At every single step, it was Trump who not only failed to do the right thing, but actually encouraged the country and its leaders to do the wrong thing.
As experts called for federal leadership and a national plan, Trump’s administration actively abdicated its duties to state and local governments — claiming that when it came to procuring badly needed tests, for example, the federal government was merely a “supplier of last resort,” leaving cash-strapped states to bid against one another (and other nations) for test kits and other equipment.
When the federal government recommended that people social distance in March, and as experts said the pandemic would be a months-long battle, Trump suggested people could get back to normal by April in time for Easter. When the federal government released a phased plan for reopening, Trump called on states to reopen faster — to supposedly “LIBERATE” them from economic calamity.
As experts pushed for more testing, Trump said that he told his people to “slow the testing down, please.” After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended people wear masks in public, Trump said it was a personal choice, refused for months to wear a mask in public, and even suggested people who were wearing masks were doing so to spite him (though he’s recently changed his tone).
Trump also promoted ineffective and even dangerous treatments — from repeatedly hyping hydroxychloroquine, which hasn’t been shown to be useful, to at one point advocating for injecting bleach.
Taken together, it’s Trump’s record — of magical thinking, lies, and incompetence — that sets the US apart.
“It begins in many ways, and you could argue it ends in many ways, with the Trump administration,” Ashish Jha, the faculty director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told me. “If George W. Bush had been president, if John McCain had been president, if Mitt Romney had been president, this would have looked very different.”
Other countries had to deal with the same baseline issues as the US. Public health systems are notoriously underfunded globally. Australia, Canada, and Germany, among others, also have federalist systems of government, individualistic societies, or both.
Trump is the outlier — the special variable that not only undermined the US’s response but actively made it worse.
The result: America, along with Spain, is unique among the developed countries in that it not only suffered a huge outbreak in the spring, but suffered a massive outbreak after that, with cases and deaths spiking from June through August. Only recently have US cases really dropped, but they remain at a level that far outpaces America’s developed peers.
It’s an outcome that didn’t have to be in the world’s wealthiest, most powerful nation. A 2019 ranking by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and Nuclear Threat Initiative found that the US was the most prepared for a major disease outbreak. But the report warned that “no country is fully prepared for epidemics or pandemics,” and there was still plenty of room for error.
“If you take what assets the United States had and you use them poorly the way we did, it doesn’t matter what the report says,” Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me. “If you don’t have the leadership to execute, then it makes no difference.”
To read more about how Trump let Covid-19 win, read my full explainer.
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