Why the Government Is No Good at Fighting Coronavirus

The problems with the federal response to COVID-19 go far beyond Donald Trump and deep into bureaucratic inertia.


One of the defining features of the coronavirus pandemic has been the failure of government, especially at the federal level, to act in a wise, timely, or effective fashion. When cases of coronavirus started showing up in Washington state in January, researchers turned to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for approval to test nasal swabs but were rebuffed by bureaucrats there and at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Officials told local doctors to stop running unauthorized tests, then waited until February 29 to let biotech companies and non-government research labs develop and deploy new tests for the virus. The two main agencies charged with protecting the nation's public health screwed up from the very beginning.

In a devastating new story, the AP reports that "the Trump administration squandered nearly two months that could have been used to bolster the federal stockpile of critically needed medical supplies and equipment." As China and then Italy wrestled with the spread of coronavirus, the president publicly minimized dangers and privately kept various agencies under his control from increasing supplies of equipment from N-95 masks to ventilators. "State and local officials report receiving broken ventilators and decade-old dry-rotted masks," says the AP, which quotes presidential son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner's statement on Thursday that "the federal stockpile" is "not supposed to be state stockpiles that they then use."

Bad as this is, it's important to underscore that the calamitous federal response is not simply the fault of Donald Trump and the people around him. As The Washington Post's Dan Balz, no supporter of the president, reported over the weekend,

The problems go far broader and deeper than what a president does. Lack of planning and preparation contribute, but so too does bureaucratic inertia as well as fear among career officials of taking risks. Turnover in personnel robs government of historical knowledge and expertise. The process of policymaking-on-the-fly is less robust than it once was. Politics, too, gets in the way.

Balz has interviewed many federal, state, and local officials involved in the responses to the 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters, and the Ebola and SARS outbreaks. One common thread was that agencies, especially at the federal level, are excessively rule-bound and slow to innovate on the ground, despite the reality that virtually every major event presents unique circumstances that call for deviations from standard-operating procedures.

Andrew Card was President George W. Bush's chief of staff, and as result was involved in the responses to both 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. (The federal response to the latter is widely considered to be one of the most incompetent emergency responses in federal history.) Before that, he had coordinated President George H.W. Bush's response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

"I found that FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] is a great organization, but they were all afraid to do things that weren't, quote, by the book," Card said. "FEMA was always being challenged…second-guessed after a disaster."

Card learned through that experience and later as White House chief of staff to President George W. Bush during 9/11 and Katrina the obstacles that the combination of fear and bureaucratic inertia can impose when immediate and innovative action is required.

"Each bureaucracy has its own momentum," he said. "The challenge in dealing with a disaster is addressing the momentum or the inabilities. If something's not moving, it takes a lot of effort to get them to move."

That helps explain why CDC and FDA officials simply denied the Washington state doctors' requests for testing approval.

If the track record of the government so far is dispiriting, there's even more cause for concern going forward. Yesterday the U.S. Surgeon General, Jerome Adams, said that the coming week will bring record surges in the number of coronavirus cases and deaths. But despite the fact that we've known about the disease since the first reported cases surfaced in China late last year, the nation's top doctor instinctively reached for metaphors about surprise attacks, telling Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday:

This is going to be the hardest and the saddest week of most Americans' lives, quite frankly….This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment.

If our leaders are still acting as if the coronavirus pandemic is a sneak attack, it's no wonder the federal response has been such a disaster.

It's comforting to know that officials are waiving stupid and counterproductive regulations, and it's heartening to see all the workarounds the private sector is doing to comfort people and save lives. But it's an outrage that we're not simply fighting a pandemic, but fighting the government that is supposed to protect us from just such a thing.

Related: Economist Alex Tabarrok says "the FDA and CDC's coronavirus is a failure of 'historic proportions'":