A haunting admission by Dr. Deborah Birx in a new CNN documentary that after last year’s first infectious wave, the death toll could have been substantially reduced, will prove harrowing for those who lost loved ones. It also throws new scrutiny on the negligent management of the pandemic by former President Donald Trump and his willingness to put economic and political goals above science and the public well-being.
Revelations by Birx, a highly respected international health expert before she became coronavirus response coordinator for the Trump White House, and by her colleagues who spoke to CNN in “COVID WAR: The Pandemic Doctors Speak Out,” which aired Sunday night, represent the most intimate view yet inside Trump’s chaotic and feudal White House when Covid-19 struck.
“I look at it this way. The first time we have an excuse,” Birx told CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. “There were about a hundred thousand deaths that came from that original surge. All of the rest of them, in my mind, could have been mitigated or decreased substantially.”
Birx’s anguish burns through the documentary. And while critics may fault her for not speaking out when she was in government, her comments come across as an attempt to precipitate a reckoning that can provide lessons on how the US can perform more effectively in a future pandemic.
“In the post-mortem, we have to come out of this and learn how to do it better, the next time,” Birx said.
Disclosures by five other top government doctors in the documentary about the country’s lack of preparedness for the pandemic will also inevitably intensify a discussion about how the US takes stock of the crisis, once it abates. The issue of whether there should be some kind of official, independent investigation into the government’s response to the pandemic will be politically fraught but will become tough to avoid.
The buck was supposed to stop with Trump
Birx told Gupta that while her scientific colleagues understood the magnitude of the coming crisis, some White House officials refused to take it sufficiently seriously. Others were fatalistic about what could be done. Birx also said that when she spoke the truth to CNN last August, about the expansive penetration of the coronavirus on US soil, she got a “very difficult” call from an angry Trump.
A charge as serious as the one made by Birx will inevitably focus blame on the ex-President himself, since his desk was where the buck was supposed to stop. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases specialist, told Gupta for instance, that Trump’s demands for a reopening of the country in contravention of the advice of government health experts came as “a punch to the chest.” CNN requested comment from the former President’s office but has so far not received a response.
But the accountability necessary after a national disaster of such scale goes beyond an assessment of the former President’s culpability — especially in a week when the nation is poised to mark the 550,000th death from Covid-19 and as infections rise again despite a now humming vaccination program.
Trump’s instincts to push for economic openings last summer were mirrored by many Republican governors in southern states who ended up triggering a summer viral surge. Trump did not create the stark political divisions in the country that hampered the pandemic response, but he arguably made things worse. With his uncanny talent for tearing at national divides, he surely understood the explosive impact of his disdain for mask wearing, turning it into a political symbol rather an essential public health measure. Birx said that there was a feeling among staff that Trump didn’t support mask wearing in the White House.
Any accounting of the pandemic must consider how far resistance to such measures was rooted in a quintessential American mistrust of government authority, reverence for individual freedom and an entrepreneurial streak — all characteristics that in different circumstances could be said to be defining US strengths. But often, the multiple diffuse centers of power in the US political system — federal, state and local — appear to have exacerbated the task of marshaling an effective national response to the crisis — especially in terms of Covid-19 testing or the provision of protective gear for hospital workers.
There’s also a question about how much responsibility individuals were prepared to shoulder for beating the virus, especially as patience thinned — and continues to more than a year into the nightmare. The still unresolved balance between public health and permitting economic activity to sustain life in other ways has constantly arisen during the pandemic and is a contributing factor when attributing blame for unnecessary deaths.
Blinken: US will not seek to punish China
The role of China, where the virus was first discovered, also comes in for new examination in the documentary. Trump’s head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Robert Redfield, expressed the controversial opinion in the documentary that the pathogen came from a Chinese laboratory. There is no evidence for such a claim. Fauci said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that “the most likely” explanation is that the virus adapted itself in nature before spreading to humans. But the role of China in the initial outbreak of the crisis, and whether it was sluggish in alerting the rest of the world, is a crucial dimension of post-pandemic assessments. Fauci said in the CNN documentary that more information from Beijing earlier could have made a “significant” difference.
But Trump and his acolytes, with their fulminating about “the China virus,” sought to cover up their own subsequent failings in fighting the pandemic.
Current Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday the US would not seek to punish China for the crisis but would seek new accountability from Beijing.
“I think what we need to be focused on is making sure we’re protecting ourselves and protecting the world going forward. And that’s going to require a lot of reform. And it’s going to require China to do things that it hasn’t done in the past,” Blinken told Dana Bash. Given the worsening state of US relations with China, some kind of official US government position on its role in the pandemic is becoming a national security imperative.
‘We are so divided’
In a sense, Trump has already paid a heavy price for his mismanagement of a virus he repeatedly said was “under control,” would “go away” and admitted to Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward that he downplayed. His pandemic leadership and Joe Biden’s promises to do better were a key factor in Trump becoming the first president in nearly 30 years not to win a second term.
Trump’s role in history will be inseparable from the fates of hundreds of thousands of Americans, whom Birx implied could have been saved had he not led one of the world’s worst attempts to counter Covid-19 — at least apart from the development of vaccines, in which his team played a major role.
Past national disasters have provoked introspection and investigations that seek to uncover how adverse events occurred and provide a moment of catharsis and recommendations to avoid recurrence.
After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson mandated the Warren Commission, which established that the ex-President was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, who was acting alone. Years of subsequent gossip and dispute, however, offer a cautionary tale to those who hope a similar pandemic panel might dispel rampant conspiracy theories.
The congressionally mandated 9/11 commission produced a raft of recommendations to secure the US against international terrorism after the September 11 attacks in 2001. In avenues of inquiry that might be relevant to the current crisis, it exposed a lack of Washington preparedness for the disaster and considered the balance between civil liberties and government-ordered security measures and how poor coordination inside government led to tragedy.
While various congressional investigations are underway to probe the origin of the pandemic and the US response, the possibility of an independent, non-partisan Covid-19 commission modeled on the 9/11 panel appears questionable. Biden and Democrats who run the House of Representatives and the Senate could create such a commission. But whether it could secure bipartisan support critical to its credibility is doubtful.
It is not clear that senior Republicans want to get to the root of what went wrong in the pandemic — since a final report would likely be highly critical of Trump. The former President remains a force in GOP politics and could influence any individual lawmakers from his party who want transparency.
Attempts to set up a 9/11-style investigation into the insurrection by Trump supporters at the US Capitol on January 6 have already fallen foul of partisan divides. Republicans and Democrats blame one another for disputes on the partisan makeup of the panel, which threatens to derail it entirely. Republicans tried to deflect blame away from Trump by demanding the commission also investigate Black Lives Matter and Antifa, despite no evidence that either group was involved in the insurrection.
The dispute underscores two fundamental differences between the United States after 9/11 and during the pandemic — a fracturing of national unity and the lack of a common respect for truth.
As former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn put it in the CNN documentary: “We are so divided and there’s a lot of mistrust across the board in the US … We need to overcome that. We need to come together.”