Medical and public health authorities warn that America is destined to join worldwide exposure to COVID-19 (one of several coronaviruses). For years we’ve been told that the future holds any number of viral and other disease outbreaks. Pandemics call for widespread, expensive group action that transcends borders, disciplines, and politics, a forced engagement with socialism whether we like it or not. Individual actions alone are necessary but totally insufficient; the leadership of government is an essential component.
All levels of government will be involved, as will voluntary organizations like churches, companies, universities, nonprofits, and independent government agencies. The federal establishment has access to funds, enjoys a lawful reach, and maintains relationships with all levels. That means the White House and Congress are not only prominent, but ascendant in their respective realms. It would be unlikely that both these federal branches are operating perfectly at any given time, but we’ve much reason to believe the Executive Branch now is, to say the least, bungling, and the Senate inept or, at least, unpracticed at any serious governing activity.
Except for the Legislative Branch’s provision of funds and helpful alteration of laws as needed, we are left with the White House as the center of whatever national response is to be generated. Grave pity, for America is plagued with a White House known neither for competence nor candor.
Our president values employees’ loyalty to him, personally, more than to the country. Our president has stripped out layers of expertise, explaining that specialists and professionals can be rehired if needed, as if they are untrained day workers. Our president is pathologically narcissistic with no patience for correcting errors because doing so would acknowledge having made mistakes. Our president with regard to ethical standards and treatment of others has proven to be a moral midget. Our president is quick to rely on revenge and punishment rather than informed leadership to make corrections when they cannot be just covered up. Our president is so convinced of his professed perfection that even slight reference to an error he may have made brings denunciation of those he holds responsible.
The results of these proclivities and distressingly many others are legion and crucial. Information he dispenses and promises he makes can never be trusted. He repeatedly hires with effusive pride and fires with feigned righteous vengeance. He strips layers of personnel from vital governmental functions, celebrating the minimal cost savings while disregarding the skills lost, as if there is no cost of those losses. In terms of professional delegation skills, he exhibits less grasp than does a new first-line supervisor. He avoids deep bench development of competence in favor of his “deep state” paranoia. He has a need to play tough guy internationally and to approach even time-tested allies as if they are enemies. He has already destroyed faith in the United States where once was respect and trust.
His treatment even of his own party has taken advantage of its spinelessness, enabling him to run rough-shod over Constitutional roles and authority. The vaunted rule of law means nothing to him except as an impediment to his desires. His behavior has increasingly displayed the foreboding progress of dictatorship-in-the-making. Meanwhile, the weakened Republican Senate, indeed the whole Republican party, has evidently decided that autocracies aren’t such a bad form of government after all.
There is nothing new or overstated about the portrayals I’ve cited above, extreme as they would have seemed to all of us merely four years ago. But there is something new about COVID-19 and its anticipated rapid spread around the globe. And such a president and such an administration don’t automatically become more moral, more competent, nor more wise because the challenges have ballooned.
Nations are called to protect the human race from a deadly virus and to master the necessary defenses against its deadly attacks. That adds international political complexity to the difficulties of getting the science and implementation right. That science and accompanying strategies for fighting pandemics, the US has—or had—one of those deep bench capacities I referred to earlier. But the president thought he knew better, so has cut away some of our accumulated capability, most obviously in the CDC.
The characteristics I’ve noted risk interfering with marshalling appropriate resources, mounting a professional delegation process with its attendant accountability, avoiding the distraction of Trump’s ego needs, keeping Americans informed with facts not sifted through political considerations (as in Wuhan), and harnessing America’s immense power of scientific inquiry along with similar strengths of managerial and technical proficiency. (It’s a sad aside to note Trump chose now to punish the HHS whistle-blower and seems more interested in stock market effect on his campaign than on the potential illness of millions.)
Given the current, disturbing predictions, COVID-19 has either more pain in store for the world in general and America in particular, or perhaps less if we are fortunate. Which it is depends greatly on our management of scientific and political capabilities. We need the best understandings, tools, and wisdom—all often in short supply. Chance alone may impede the expected downsides, however we do know that when large, complex problems (think climate change) meet small, self-centered minds, we need all the solutions we can acquire and all the hope we can get.