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
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.
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
But Trump and his acolytes, with their fulminating about “the China virus,” sought to cover up their own subsequent failings in fighting the pandemic.
“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’
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.
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.
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.”