It was on that day that a 35-year-old man in Washington state, recently returned from visiting family in Wuhan in China, became the first person in the US to be diagnosed with the virus.
— Laura Walker ⚖🍸🇺🇸 🏴 (@LauraWalkerKC) March 28, 2020
On the very same day, 5,000 miles away in Asia, the first confirmed case of Covid-19 was reported in South Korea. The confluence was striking, but there the similarities ended.
In the two months since that fateful day, the responses to coronavirus displayed by the US and South Korea have been polar opposites. One country acted swiftly and aggressively to detect and isolate the virus, and by doing so has largely contained the crisis. The other country dithered and procrastinated, became mired in chaos and confusion, was distracted by the individual whims of its leader, and is now confronted by a health emergency of daunting proportions.
Within a week of its first confirmed case, South Korea’s disease control agency had summoned 20 private companies to the medical equivalent of a war-planning summit and told them to develop a test for the virus at lightning speed. A week after that, the first diagnostic test was approved and went into battle, identifying infected individuals who could then be quarantined to halt the advance of the disease. Some 357,896 tests later, South Korea has more or less won the coronavirus war. On Friday only 91 new cases were reported in a country of more than 50 million.
The US response tells a different story. Two days after the first diagnosis in Washington state, Donald Trump went on air on CNBC and bragged: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming from China. It’s going to be just fine.”A week after that, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion article by two former top health policy officials within the Trump administration under the headline Act Now to Prevent an American Epidemic.
Luciana Borio and Scott Gottlieb laid out a menu of what had to be done instantly to avert a massive health disaster. Top of their to-do list: work with private industry to develop an “easy-to-use, rapid diagnostic test” – in other words, just what South Korea was doing. It was not until 29 February, more than a month after the Journal article and almost six weeks after the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in the country that the Trump administration put that advice into practice. Those missing four to six weeks are likely to go down in the definitive history as a cautionary tale of the potentially devastating consequences of failed political leadership. “The US response will be studied for generations as a textbook example of a disastrous, failed effort,” Ron Klain, who spearheaded the fight against Ebola in 2014, told a Georgetown university panel. “What’s happened in Washington has been a fiasco of incredible proportions.”
Jeremy Konyndyk, who led the US government’s response to international disasters at USAid from 2013 to 2017, frames the past six weeks in strikingly similar terms. Konyndyk told the Guardian: “We are witnessing in the United States one of the greatest failures of basic governance and basic leadership in modern times.” In Konyndyk’s analysis, the White House had all the information it needed by the end of January to act decisively. Instead, Trump repeatedly played down the severity of the threat, blaming China for what he called the “Chinese virus” and . . . insisting falsely that his partial travel bans on China and Europe were all it would take to contain the crisis. If Trump’s travel ban did nothing else, it staved off to some degree the advent of the virus in the US, buying a little time. Which makes the lack of decisive action all the more curious. Read the whole damning article. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/mar/28/trump-coronavirus-politics-us-health-disaster?CMP=share_btn_tw
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