Editor’s Note: Jeffrey Sachs is a professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
The US now has the world’s highest number of deaths from Covid-19, with at least 21,692 losing their lives to the virus as of Sunday afternoon. Americans will continue to die in large numbers until our country mounts a coherent response to the epidemic. President Donald Trump has failed. The US still lacks even a basic plan for controlling the epidemic and restarting the economy.
It only takes a straightforward comparison of the US’ death toll with that of Asian countries to understand the scale of the Trump administration’s failure. The US now has about 62 deaths per million people. Meanwhile, according to Johns Hopkins University data, Hong Kong, Japan, and Taiwan all have less than 1 death per million; and China, South Korea and Singapore have each under 5 deaths per million. India, too, took decisive actions, with a complete national lockdown beginning on March 24, when there still had been only 10 deaths in a country of 1.3 billion people. As of today, India has only 289 reported deaths, or 0.2 cases per million, and the hospitals are not jammed with patients as in the US.
Unlike these Asian countries, Trump failed to prepare for the pandemic even after the alarm bells went off. He ignored urgent warning signs. He continued to make light of the high risks, saying repeatedly that everything was under control.
Trump was certainly not alone. Many European countries also failed to act in a timely way and some have death rates per million that are even higher than in the US. The United Kingdom, under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, dithered instead of acted – and now has one of Europe’s worst trajectories, while the Prime Minister himself landed in the ICU (he left the hospital on Sunday). In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has been in denial as the epidemic grows.
Trump, meanwhile, repeatedly fails to put public health experts truly in the lead. He ignores the rudiments of basic public health and seems to view the epidemic in political and electoral rather than public health terms. As usual, he blames others for his own disastrous failings.
Trump’s latest target of attack is the World Health Organization (WHO), which plays a key role in helping governments around the world to fight this disease. Here is what Trump tweeted on February 24: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart.” Yet now, with Trump’s approach a tragic and obvious failure (except to his ardent followers) he turns on the WHO because, he says, they “called it wrong.”
His hyper-partisan and irresponsible allies in Congress follow his lead, calling for the US to cut off funds to WHO in the midst of the pandemic. It’s hard to think of a more shameful policy that would put an end to any semblance of US global responsibility. These Congressmen have a responsibility to their suffering constituents, not to a reckless president. They should be focusing on the unfolding tragedy at home, rather than being agents of Trump’s propaganda.
The attacks on the WHO are nonsensical. All countries had access to the same information at the same time. Why did the Asian countries succeed while the US and many in Europe failed so badly? The answer is national leadership and public health readiness, not the WHO, which was reporting to all countries at the same time and in the same way. An obvious truth is that WHO is just one source of information for the US and other countries. The US has its own experts, legions of them. It has its own intelligence agencies. It has its own network of epidemiological surveillance. It could directly observe China’s growing alarm and dramatic actions, including China’s lockdown of Wuhan beginning on January 23.
What part of this was so hard for Trump to understand?
Here’s the simple truth. The alarm bells were ringing from late December onward. Taiwan, for example, began taking urgent precautions as early as December 31, 2019. The US intelligence agencies were writing to Trump in alarm in early January. The director of the China Center for Disease Control personally called the director of the US Centers for Disease Control on January 3. Trump’s White House Adviser Peter Navarro wrote an urgent memo on January 28 warning of the virus’ potential toll.
Trump said that he never saw these reports and memos. I believe Trump on this. He is an absentee president, other than for his rallies, reality TV “briefings,” and golf games. He is propped up by a cabal of elites on the theory that not much can go wrong if the stock market is rising and taxes are low.
Trump will continue to fulminate against WHO and China and any other targets to distract attention. Yet the record is clear: China got the epidemic under control while the US did not. China implemented a strict national lockdown while the US did not. China deployed its top technologists and companies to do the job. In fact, Trump repeatedly praised China during February, only turning on China when the situation got tough in the US.
Unlike China, which turned to its public health experts, Trump turned to Vice President Mike Pence and son-in-law Jared Kushner. Thousands of Americans are dying unnecessarily as a result and we are still far from any coherent national plan. It’s only the governors and mayors who are scrambling and who are consulting the experts in their public health systems, universities, and other scientific institutions.
What would be in such a national plan? It’s obvious and I’ve outlined it before.
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We would be contacting symptomatic individuals and quickly isolating them. We would be tracing their contacts and testing them too. We would be using phone apps and online registries to support the tracing, testing, and isolation processes. We would be screening the public for symptoms in bus and train stations, airports, and other public places. We would be wearing face masks in public, and be using hand sanitizers relentlessly. Our goal would be to identify and isolate potential Covid-19 cases as early and quickly as possible through standard public health measures that should have been used from the start but were not. We would be doing, in short, what the Asian countries have been doing to control the epidemic.
America’s failure is plain for all to see, even if Trump loyalists are blind to it. We are at the end of the “Wizard of Oz” tale. The curtain has been pushed aside to reveal the con man behind the curtain. Our choice is like Dorothy’s: to go home to the country of competence we once knew, or to remain in the deadly dream kingdom of Trump.