April 1, 2020

After a very long day of teaching on-line (which I find exhausting) and celebrating the new book’s publication date (woo hoo!) I fell deeply asleep on the couch early this evening and awoke hours later to read the news. In that quiet clarity of being newly rested in the middle of the night, reading the news felt very much like history research, when you are dropped into the sources and getting a sense of what the world looked like at a certain moment in time.

If I were looking back at today from the vantage point of a hundred years from now, I would write that the government, whose systems for handling a crisis have been dismantled, is faltering badly as inexperienced officials are trying to respond to a pandemic by relying on the private sector.

Hardly a novel interpretation, but it really jumps out when you spend a couple of hours reading the day’s news all at once.

Here’s what I saw:

The news broke that the United States has been sending medical supplies to other countries while our own health care workers don’t have masks or PPE (personal protective equipment). Politico revealed that an administration official called counterparts in Thailand to ask for PPE only to be told by a confused official on the other end who said that the U.S. was shipping those very supplies to Thailand. One shipment had already arrived, and another was on its way. Vice President Mike Pence, who is in charge of the administration’s coronavirus task force, immediately halted the shipment. It appears that there has been no coordination between the administration and USAID, the United States Agency for International Development, so we have apparently been exporting the very supplies we need at home.

This created a furor over the fact that we also sent 17.8 tons of medical supplies, including masks, gowns, gauze, and respirators to China in February, after the severity of our own impending crisis was already clear. The administration has said these supplies were “donated,” but I have not been able to track down by whom.

Politico also broke the story that since March 12, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has been in charge of his own coronavirus response team to get the private sector on board to fight the crisis. Trump has been reluctant to activate the Defense Production Act, a law that enables the government to encourage manufacturers to produce vital equipment and protects them from losses when they do. Bizarrely, the Trump administration—like all others since the law went into effect in the 1950s—uses this act all the time to respond to natural disasters, to move supplies around during emergencies, and so on, but refuses to do so now. Instead, it appears Trump has tapped Kushner to coordinate with private industry. In that capacity, he and his outside experts—including a number from the consulting firm McKinsey—are acting as a sort of independent cell without government oversight and are overruling the teams already in place.

We learned that the Obama administration tried five years ago to address what it perceived as a lack of ventilators in case of a pandemic, paying $13.8 million to a Pennsylvania manufacturer—a subsidiary of a huge Dutch appliance and technology corporation-- to create a cheap, easy ventilator to stockpile. The FDA cleared the device in September and the Department of Health and Human Services, which had provided the $13.8 million, ordered 10,000 of them for $3,280 each. Instead of providing those ventilators, the company instead hiked its prices and sold them overseas. Trump has declined to use the DPA to get the company to produce the ventilators it developed for the U.S. Instead, Kushner’s team is negotiating with it to build 43,000 more expensive hospital ventilators for the U.S.

Pence tried to suggest that the administration’s slow response was because China had been slow about admitting the full extent of the disease and that the Centers for Disease Control had initially mischaracterized the danger from it as low. (While China did try to quash information about the disease, the CDC was clear about it.) Pence continued: “I don’t believe the President has ever belittled the threat of the coronavirus.” (There is overwhelming evidence Trump did exactly this.)

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has not wanted to take the responsibility for closing down his state and has been trying to get Trump to do it. But Trump doesn’t want to do it either. So the two of them have been trying to get the other to do it as the infection and death rates in Florida climb. Finally, today, DeSantis made the call, but he exempted churches, synagogues, and houses of worship from its provisions, calling them essential businesses. This will permit religious leaders like Rodney Howard-Browne to keep his megachurch open. On Monday, sheriff’s deputies arrested Howard-Browne for unlawful assembly and a violation of health emergency rules.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp has finally issued shelter-in-place order for Georgia, too, as the state reported 4,748 cases of Covid-19 and 56 deaths. He said a key change was the recent news that people could transmit the virus without showing symptoms, but of course that news is not recent; we have known it virtually since the beginning.

DeSantis has another crisis on his hands, too. A cruise ship with infected passengers is sitting off the coast of Florida, and he doesn’t want it to dock in the state. Trump is not taking responsibility for that, either. So DeSantis has finally announced he will take off the ship the 49 people on it who hail from Florida… but not the others, including those from other countries, who continue to float on a ship with disease on it. This situation needs an immediate solution.

The federal government had a similar problem aboard the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier where Covid-19 was spreading. Tired of waiting for his superiors to get his people to safety, the ship’s commander wrote a scathing letter claiming that keeping the sailors on the ship was “an unnecessary risk and breaks faith with those Sailors entrusted to our care.” After the letter was made public, Navy officials agreed to offload sailors to quarantine in Guam to keep the disease at bay.

Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler, appointed by Kemp and married to the CEO of the company that owns the New York Stock Exchange, revealed more stock trades today that took place after she had attended a Senate briefing on the severity of the coming epidemic. She sold stock in retail stores and bought stock in a company that makes PPEs. She maintains she has done nothing wrong.

And Devin Nunes (R-CA), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee and associate of indicted political operative Lev Parnas said on the Fox News Channel today he thought that closing schools was “way overkill” and that it was hurting the economy unnecessarily. California has more than 6,900 cases and at least 150 people there have died from it.

Finally, it appears that Trump will continue golfing despite the crisis. Although staying mum about who the “dignitary” they need to protect is, the Secret Service has signed a $45,000 contract to rent golf carts in Sterling, Virginia, where Trump has a golf course that remains open despite Virginia’s stay-at-home order.

It’s important to note that any of these stories might have good explanations. Maybe shoring up USAID was worth losing our PPEs, or there’s a good reason not to use the DPA to get more ventilators from the company who contracted to produce them. But if so, we are not hearing those explanations. Instead, what jumps out at this hodge-podge of stories is the lack of organization and expertise, and the apparent every-man-for-himself attitude at the highest levels of government.

That attitude sure doesn’t seem to be producing an effective response to the global pandemic that is threatening our lives.

——

Notes":

DeSantis:

https://www.newsweek.com/florida-gov-suggests-hell-enforce-stricter-covid-19-measures-if-white-house-recommends-stay-home-1495385

https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/us-tons-ppe-china/

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/31/pence-task-force-coronavirus-aid-157806

DeSantis: https://www.cnn.com/world/live-news/coronavirus-pandemic-04-01-20-intl/h_b2d27eeaa15e3e082511fb168c63575d

Golf carts: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/amid-virus-outbreak-secret-service-signed-contract-to-rent-golf-carts-at-home-of-trump-club/2020/04/01/86d249fe-7449-11ea-85cb-8670579b863d_story.html

DPA: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/03/28/use-defense-production-act-more-than-just-ventilators/

Cruise ship:

Pence: https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/01/politics/mike-pence-coronavirus/index.html

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/31/pence-task-force-coronavirus-aid-157806

Loeffler: https://www.ajc.com/news/state--regional-govt--politics/loeffler-reports-more-stock-sales-denies-wrongdoing/YFPDT3pChO873nuzNKa44K/

Kushner: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/04/01/jared-kushner-coronavirus-response-160553

Nunes: https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/01/politics/devin-nunes-coronavirus-schools/index.html

Ventilators: https://www.propublica.org/article/taxpayers-paid-millions-to-design-a-low-cost-ventilator-for-a-pandemic-instead-the-company-is-selling-versions-of-it-overseas-

Navy: https://www.npr.org/2020/04/01/825640094/top-navy-brass-defend-response-to-virus-stricken-carrier-u-s-s-theodore-roosevel

Kemp: https://www.ajc.com/news/opinion/opinion-gov-kemp-finally-catches/HfAu5wGu35yCANenYtLu6N/