President Donald Trump’s critics keep trying to downplay his extraordinary measures to curtail the spread of the coronavirus in the United States, but the fact is that he has been thinking ahead of everybody when it comes to the pandemic response.
I can’t overstate how important it was that President Trump shut down travel from China, and then Europe, as soon as he did. Without those travel restrictions, we would have had a much larger, much more widespread problem to deal with. As we’ve seen in countries such as Italy and Iran who failed on this measure, limiting exposure to infected individuals in the early stages is crucial to minimizing the eventual extent of the outbreak.
Yet, rather than commending the president for his foresight, the news media attack him as a “racist” for publicly acknowledging that the pandemic originated in China. What is next? Are we to rename Chinese restaurants because it’s “racist” to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its communist government?
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In January, President Trump also assembled a top-notch coronavirus task force composed of world-class health and public policy experts who have patiently guided the public through the crisis and are working closely with businesses and the leaders of state and local governments to devise both mitigation strategies and long-term solutions. This complex tapestry of private/corporate/government/military cooperation has never been done before—we will see it pay off for the American people.
Yes, there was intelligence being provided to the White House and the administration in January and February—many of us, inside and outside of the administration, were reviewing and evaluating this information as national security professionals while the mainstream media and political Left focused on impeachment. We were trying to ascertain the facts and realities regarding the Chinese coronavirus threat to prepare —not panic— the nation.
Unfortunately, as some of those very experts have pointed out, our country’s efforts to combat the coronavirus have been hampered by the poor decisions of previous administrations, which left us ill-equipped to respond to the type of threat we face today.
There was a critical blind spot in our initial assessment, a blind spot that exists to this very day—the Chinese government. Because of the Chinese Communist Party’s stonewalling and deception regarding Wuhan and the scope of the outbreak, and our lack of independent “biological surveillance” capabilities, the assessment was hampered.
The Obama administration was similarly short-sighted when it came to employing big data techniques to conduct global disease surveillance. While the White House did make some half-hearted efforts to develop a domestic biological surveillance program, Obama’s team ultimately deferred to the World Health Organization’s system, which has repeatedly fallen short due to inadequate reporting compliance on the part of countries such as China. This lack of independent biological surveillance by the U.S. intelligence community is an issue that must be fixed to detect new outbreaks early.
Our ability to conduct an aggressive response was also hampered by another Obama administration neglect. In response to the first outbreaks of Ebola virus in the late-1970s, the U.S. government created the Aeromedical Isolation and Special Medical Augmentation Response Team (AIT-SMART) in 1978 to safely evacuate highly contagious U.S. patients out of outbreak areas. The transport team would take the patients to a Medical Containment Suite, where they could receive intensive care while remaining under the most stringent biosafety protocols, known as Biosafety Level 4. Through comprehensive planning and intensive training, the AIT-SMART teams became adept at repatriating infected Americans without exposing other citizens to the risk of contagion.
In 2010, however, this critical capability was lost when AIT-SMART fell victim to the Obama-era “sequestration” cuts. It almost felt like nature was warning us of our folly four years later, when a new outbreak of Ebola nearly spread to American communities because we lacked the expertise to safely repatriate infected Americans from the hot zone.
Another key fact that has been lost by the U.S. media is this: President Trump realized shortly after his election that the country’s ability to rapidly produce a vaccine was a critical part of national defense neglected by the Obama administration. He consequently launched a multi-year effort to develop the latest cell culture-based technology for vaccine manufacturing on U.S. soil, most particularly for influenza and emerging disease agents like the coronavirus. This capacity continues to grow after years of neglect.
President Trump’s calm and confident demeanor when he updates the country about our effort to fight the coronavirus is only possible because he took the threat seriously from the very beginning. As a leader, he has to take practical steps to stop the virus and mitigate the damage it causes to our economy, but he also has to offer moral leadership to sustain morale as he asks the American people to make necessary sacrifices for the common good.
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Indeed, the president’s message becomes more positive with each press briefing he gives—and with good reason. With each passing day, we increase the arsenal of weapons available to fight the coronavirus, and understand better how to deploy them.
Even some of Donald Trump’s most stalwart critics, such as Democrat Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, have gushed about how “incredible” his response to the pandemic has been.
To quote the president, when this is all over, “we’re gonna say, well, we won. I think we’re gonna win faster than people think. I hope.” So do I, Mr. President; and so, I’m sure, does every American. If we do prevail rapidly, it will be due entirely to President Trump’s ability to overcome the institutional handicaps left for him to overcome.
Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer is a retired senior intelligence operations officer and President of the London Center for Policy Research.