It wasn't the pandemic that destroyed federal health agencies, it was Donald Trump
Joe Biden is coming into office with a recession that tops that of 2009, a pandemic that’s the worst in a century, and a nation where a significant number of people believe that Donald Trump was chosen by God to fight a war against Chinese troops being smuggled into Maine. If George W. Bush drove the nation into a ditch, Donald Trump has tossed America down a well. And he’s still throwing crap on top.
With so many tasks ahead, restoring trust in federal agencies after Trump has devoted four years to taking them apart, dismissing actual experts, and shoving sycophants into every possible nook and cranny may seem like quite an ask. It’s also completely vital. That may nowhere be as true as all the various components of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Trump’s attacks on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during the COVID-19 pandemic may have seemed extreme, but they were only a continuation of something that began with a party that was literally named “End of Science and Medicine” that happened just months into Trump’s term.
As Politico reports, that very aptly named party was held six months after Trump took control. The party marked the “retirement” of longtime Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health Tom Novotny after he refused to take transfer to “a lower profile” position. The party didn’t just mark Novotny’s departure but the disassembly of his whole team of public health experts. And to top it all off, the public health adviser who made the joke about the name of the party was himself fired three days later, and warned to never talk to his previous associates again.
That public health adviser, Joshua Prasad, was fired one day before he would have obtained enough time in office to make it more difficult for him to be fired without cause. Despite the way he had been pushed out, Prasad wrote back to the newcomers in HHS, urging them to keep the Science and Medicine team together and to keep pushing on the issues that had been under investigation. He might as well not have bothered.
The End of Science party only marked the beginning of dozens of such events during which Politico notes that ”Trump appointees sidelined, ignored or pushed out career health officials in favor of policies demanded by the White House.”
Why has the United States had the worst-in-the-world performance on COVID-19? It’s not just the failure of leadership at the top. It’s also the way that HHS has been gutted of experience and knowledge top to bottom. Donald Trump valued personal loyalty over knowledge and capability. This is what we got.
The result of all this isn’t just evident in a vaccine rollout that’s being called a disaster, but in the absolutely unique way that COVID-19 is affecting the United States.
Other nations have suffered from large number of cases of COVID-19. In some cases, such as in the U.K. and India, surges have sometimes actually taken them above the number of daily cases being logged by the United States. The difference is that in every one of those nations, the growth of new cases has been halted by government action. It’s only in the United States that COVID-19 has simply grown beyond all previous limits. India was experiencing over 90,000 positive results a day in September. That number is now under 20,000. Many European nations experienced a challenging surge in November. By Christmas, they had reduced numbers by 80%.
Only in the United States has surge followed surge followed surge. Not only is the United States running at a rate many time that of the next highest nation, the numbers look even worse when it’s recognized that the two dips in the the last month of U.S. data are simply generated by lower testing levels during Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Biden faces not just the job of bringing that pandemic under control, but of repairing the organizations that are necessary to both foresee and fight pandemics. And he’s going to be doing it at a moment when both Republicans in Congress and reporters in national media are sure to develop a sudden case of amnesia for everything they’ve overlooked, and have instantly reset their outrage meters to the “sound alarm in case of wrong condiment” range.
HHS isn’t alone. The same task faces Biden at the State Department. The Department of Justice. The EPA. The Department of Energy … at every point, Trump has thrown experience and expertise in the trash, and replaced it with loyalists who are out to subvert government functions. A serious de-Trumpification is going to be required.