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The Coronavirus Commission in Trump’s Future

Congress should launch an inquiry into the administration’s botched response to the pandemic.

Olivier Douliery/Getty Images

The World Health Organization declared on Wednesday that the coronavirus outbreak had become a pandemic, urging governments to take further steps to stem the now-worldwide spread of the virus. “WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock, and we are deeply concerned, both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction,” director-general Tedros Adhanom said.

Adhanom did not specify which countries had shown an “alarming level of inaction,” but one choice was obvious: the United States of America. Since its emergence in January, President Donald Trump has treated the outbreak as a public relations crisis first and a public health crisis second. “It will go away,” he blithely told reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. “Just stay calm. It will go away.” Pandemic response strategies typically assume that Americans will be able to trust their national leaders for honest and forthright information. Simply put, with the Trump administration in charge, they can’t.

The White House isn’t alone in botching the response, however. Missteps by federal agencies have prevented full-scale testing efforts across the country, even as South Korea, Japan, and numerous European countries successfully screen tens of thousands of people for the virus each day. Public health officials stateside have warned that the crisis is nowhere near over. “I can say we will see more cases, and things will get worse than they are right now,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading federal infectious disease expert, told lawmakers on Wednesday.

You don’t have to be an epidemiologist or public health expert to realize that something has gone seriously wrong. It may be too optimistic to hope for a full-scale accounting of what happened while the worst still lies ahead, but it is absolutely essential to get one as soon as possible. Congress should begin work on legislation to establish a national public inquiry, akin to the 9/11 Commission, to help Americans learn what went wrong—and what needs to be done to prevent it from happening again.

The first question is obvious: How did the U.S. fall so dramatically behind other countries in its capacity to ramp up and roll out the means to conduct the necessary testing to confirm active cases? What we know so far points toward a staggering systemic breakdown. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that infectious disease experts in Seattle struggled for weeks to obtain federal permission to test samples they had obtained for an influenza study for possible coronavirus. Only after they defied federal officials did they discover that the virus had been circulating throughout the state of Washington for weeks. According to the Times, when they alerted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration of their findings, they were still told to stop testing immediately.

It’s currently impossible to tell just how far coronavirus has spread in the U.S. Federal mismanagement, by comparison, seems endemic. Instead of using the recommended protocol established by the WHO, the CDC reportedly wasted weeks developing its own test for coronavirus. As ProPublica reported, these delays were compounded by the fact that the more “complicated” test developed by the CDC didn’t work as advertised: While it “correctly identified COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus,” in “all but a handful of state labs, it falsely flagged the presence of … other viruses in harmless samples.” 

It ended up taking several weeks for most states to begin testing a handful of potential patients. The U.S. now lags behind the efforts of many heavily impacted nations. By March 8, in fact, South Korea had tested almost 190,000 people and was administering thousands of tests per day.  The U.S., by comparison, had only tested just over 1,700 people. What’s more, CDC Director Robert Redfield told Politico on Tuesday that American labs are already running low on key materials used for coronavirus testing, raising questions about their preparedness for a major crisis.

Another point of contention is the CDC’s strict guidelines for who can be tested. Federal health officials restricted the test to people who had traveled to severely affected countries like China or Italy or who had otherwise met a handful of other stringent requirements. While the limits may have made sense in the pandemic’s early stages, they became counterproductive once the virus began spreading from person to person within the continental U.S. Those restrictions have not been uniformly followed, either: Florida Representative Matt Gaetz and North Carolina Representative Mark Meadows, two of Trump’s close allies, said they had been tested for the virus despite showing no symptoms of it.

A commission could also examine why the American health care system wasn’t better prepared for a pandemic. Many of the current woes trace back to the president. After Trump took office, budget cuts forced the CDC to scrap programs it created after the Ebola crisis in 2014, including funding for frontline hospitals. The agency also eliminated its epidemic-prevention program for most countries, including China. In 2018, then–National Security Adviser John Bolton dismantled the White House’s global health security team and eliminated the position that oversaw it. That person would have been the White House’s lead official during the coronavirus outbreak once it arose.

Finally, an independent body would be well placed to evaluate whether Trump and Congress took the right steps to alleviate the social and economic fallout of the pandemic. Some of the administration’s early proposals, such as a payroll tax cut, went nowhere after bipartisan criticism. Democratic lawmakers put forward a broader set of measures on Wednesday to mitigate the effects on working Americans, including paid sick leave and emergency grants to affected businesses. But it’s unclear whether even those steps will be enough if millions of Americans are quarantined or incapacitated by the illness.

There will inevitably be resistance to forming a commission to evaluate the government’s response to the pandemic. The George W. Bush administration pushed back hard against congressional efforts to create the 9/11 Commission at first; its co-chairs later complained that the CIA obstructed its investigation by withholding key interrogation tapes of Al Qaeda members. More recently, Trump and his allies have dismissed criticism of his response to the pandemic as a partisan ploy, complaining once again that his enemies are just trying to bring him down.

This talking point is familiar to anyone who’s paid attention for the last three years. It’s been made by countless conservative pundits and White House aides during the Russia investigation, the Ukraine scandal, and many of the smaller controversies that have dogged this administration. By now it’s best read as a tacit acknowledgment that Trump should be held accountable for his actions and that his political survival should be the highest priority for his supporters. That may be good enough for Trump’s ideological allies, but it’s not good enough for the country.

Congress took initial steps to provide some scrutiny on Wednesday by summoning top public health officials to Capitol Hill for hearings. Lawmakers should continue to hold those hearings at regular intervals in the weeks and months ahead to keep the executive branch’s feet to the fire. If things get significantly worse, that will not be enough. A disaster of this magnitude demands accountability of the magnitude to match it. The nation deserves nothing less.