Reflections on the US Pandemic Response

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Whether I like it or not, my country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is highly scrutinized worldwide. The US has the most Coronavirus cases. Our press also isn’t restricted when they report about it like in some other countries. My country publishes its mistakes for the whole world to see.

Those mistakes have cost about 80,000 lives in my country, as of this writing. It’s hard to tell whether this includes deaths directly because of the illness but also indirect deaths (like reduced access to medical care).

The lack of information is a big problem.
Despite my country being open about its mistakes, there’s still too little information released to the public. We don’t know how long the illness was around in our country before officials decided to do anything. The infection rate in New York suggests that it was around for a while, undetected by local and national authorities.

As far as national authorities are concerned, it’s been hard to tell what officials knew what at a given time. There’s been recent evidence to suggest that the Trump administration buried a CDC report on the reopening of the economy. According to that report, many places in the US that are reopening are not doing so safely.

Things are starting to reopen, whether it’s wise or not.
Here is a map of what states are doing what in the US. Most states are trying to engage in partial reopenings, where businesses operate with reduced occupancy and foot traffic. There are places in Europe doing this as well.

Which practices are sensible? It’s hard to tell. Each state has its own plan regarding what’s safe. Many rely on medical advice, or claim to rely on medical advice, but many members of the public aren’t trusting that decision. Where I live, things are reopening, but I see more masks and social distancing as time goes on. This self-isolation might do more to curb the spread of the disease. Politicians will take credit if things go well and shift blame if things go poorly.

The lack of a national response has been frustrating.
Since hearing about the buried CDC report, I have to wonder if there’s been anything else that has been buried. During this whole epidemic, the CDC has been notably quiet and ineffective. It’s their job to shine during such a crisis. And it’s not like they’re wholly ignorant of medicine and how diseases work.

The problem is I don’t know if that agency has been intentionally silenced or has been gutted to the point that it’s useless. Neither alternative is attractive. Fortunately it all points to a similar root cause.

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The Trump administration has been absolute garbage regarding this.
I know there are people who insist Trump can do no wrong. The administration initially claimed absolute authority over a disease response. At the same time, it was letting states fend for themselves. That latter point has resulted in the haphazard response of states scrambling to figure out how to manage an epidemic. They weren’t prepared for it – in part because Federal authorities have claimed they had it covered.

Worse, the administration has disclaimed any responsibility for its mismanagement. Successes (only 100k deaths expected!) have presidential authors while failures are an orphan belonging to someone else. It’s hard to take advice from an administration that isn’t willing to be honest about anything. No wonder that some people don’t trust it and have found solace in conspiracy theories.

What needs to happen next?
After the pandemic subsides – which could take longer because of the bad decisions by some states – we need to get access to many internal documents regarding federal management of the disease. There was one email chain that the NY Times got hold of that showed some authorities were already suspecting infection in the US as early as February. These people were flat out ignored by politicians.

I also think that the lion’s share of the blame needs to stick to federal authorities. States are going to mess up when federal guidance is hidden from them. The buck has to stop somewhere. In this case, that’s the Oval Office.

9 thoughts on “Reflections on the US Pandemic Response

  1. Covid-19 sucks, but we are our own worse enemy it seems… Over here in NZ we are planning on re-opening almost everything this Thursday, although our cases are pretty low now. Will be interesting to see if it stays that way.

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  2. I think Barack Obama’s description of the federal government’s handling of the pandemic situation sums it up nicely: “Absolute chaotic disaster”.

    Worldwide, the methods of reporting covid-19 statistics varies considerably. Some counties report only hospital deaths, but not those in aged care facilities or at home. Some countries report only confirmed infections while others report confirmed and suspected infections. There’s also no universal agreement on when a recovery occurs.

    For example in Aotearoa New Zealand, all deaths where COVID-19 is believed to be a contributing factor are reported as COVID-19 deaths irrespective of whether or not an infection is confirmed. A recovery occurs when a patient has shown no symptoms for 28 days and a test result is negative.

    When it comes to gaining public support for handling the pandemic, no matter what processes are invoked, it’s absolutely vital that the public is kept fully informed – what the options are, how they might be implemented and the likely outcomes. It’s also especially important that the public understand why a particular option was chosen over others.

    In all of the above, the New Zealand authorities have been outstanding, and it goes a long way to explain why the government’s actions have had a 87% approval rating compared to a 5% disapproval rating. Where there’s a difference of opinion between health officials and politicians, these these are openly acknowledged, and the reasoning behind why one or the other won out or how a compromise was reached is openly discussed at the daily COVID-19 News briefings.

    America will continue to be scrutinised by the rest of the world simply because of its influence on the worls stage. Ultimately, whatever happens in America effects the rest of the world for better or for worse, There’s a common saying around there that goes “When the US sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold”.

    A good example of this was the looming beef shortage in America. In a deregulated market such as NZ, domestic prices match international prices. After all, why sell domestically if prices overseas are better. Beef prices rose here in anticipation of a price hike in the US as producers set aside additional stock for export.

    As far as press freedom goes, the US does poorly compared to other developed nations. It is ranked at 45th by Reporters Without Borders, compared to the UK at 35th, New Zealand at 9th, and Norway, Finland, Denmark and Sweden taking the top four spots. The American press self censors more than the press of other developed nations do.

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    • Saying the US does “poorly” compared with other developed nations regarding press freedom is overstating what’s in the index RSF compiles. It appears that the US is where it is because of Trump’s poor relationship with the press. Despite his open animosity towards journalists, the US still has fewer incidents of abuse than in larger, higher-ranking countries like the UK, France, Spain, and Germany.


      • Actually Trump has caused no significant shift in the RSF rankings, which I find quite surprising given his open hostility to the press. Historically it’s been jargely due to self censorship, not to abuse or regulatory limitations. NZ doesn’t do as well as the Nordic states due to the small number of significant players in the market. And the pandemic has just triggered the shutdown of a major publisher, which has further reduced competition, so I expect our ranking will continue to slide downwards.


  3. Our Aussie Govt did a terrible job handling our bushfire crisis, including ignoring all the early warning signs. But they’ve saved their skin for now, by managing the COVID crisis brilliantly till now. They based their guidelines on expert medical advice and the vast majority of Aussies have abided by the rules put in place. Our flu season hasn’t started yet but TBH, I’d rather live here than ANY other country atm!

    I feel so sorry for sensible Americans!

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