One opportunity for decisive action came Jan. 28, when his national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, told Trump that the coronavirus “will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency.” Trump absorbed the warning, telling Bob Woodward days later how deadly and contagious the virus could be, according to Woodward’s new book, “Rage.”
Yet the president then misled the public by downplaying the virus, comparing it to the flu and saying that it would “go away.” He resisted masks, sidelined experts, held large rallies, denounced lockdowns and failed to get tests and protective equipment ready — and here we are, with Americans constituting 4 percent of the world’s population and 22 percent of Covid-19 deaths.
There’s plenty of blame to be directed as well at local officials, nursing home managers and ordinary citizens — but Trump set the national agenda.
Suppose Trump in January — or even in February — had warned the public of the dangers, had ensured that accurate tests were widely distributed (Sierra Leone had tests available before the United States) and had built up a robust system of contact tracing (Congo has better contact tracing than the United States).
Suppose he had ramped up production of masks and empowered the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to lead the pandemic response, instead of marginalizing its experts.
Suppose he had tried as relentlessly to battle the virus as he has to build his wall?
If testing and contact tracing had been done right, then we would have known where hot spots were and large-scale lockdowns and layoffs might have been unnecessary.
The United States would still have made mistakes. We focused too much on ventilators and not enough on other things that might have been more useful, like face masks, blood thinners and high-flow nasal cannulas. Because of mask shortages, health messaging about their importance was bungled. Governors and mayors dithered, and nursing homes weren’t adequately protected.
But many of our peer countries did better than we did not because they got everything right but because they got some things right — and then learned from mistakes.