Last week, four Republican senators co-sponsored legislation "to let states approve and distribute diagnostic tests when the state or federal government has declared a public health emergency" because—in the words of their press release—"our federal bureaucracy simply has not moved fast enough during this crisis." It was an explicit rebuke to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for botching COVID-19 testing and for standing in the way of state governments, universities, and private labs that were willing and able to do the job.
Implicitly, it was a shot from the president's own party at the Trump administration's incompetent handling of the pandemic. The senators could easily have broadened the targets of their bill; this year has seen the president, governors, and government officials of all types go out of the way to turn a health crisis into a larger catastrophe through bungling, malice, and overreach.
That the CDC dropped the ball is no secret. Early testing kits produced by the agency were contaminated by bad procedures and then bureaucratic delays hampered efforts to fix the problem. Amidst ample evidence of in-house incompetence, the feds then tried to make sure nobody else could show them up.
"Agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services not only failed to make early use of the hundreds of labs across the United States, they enforced regulatory roadblocks that prevented non-government labs from assisting," CNN noted last month.
Was the CDC's incompetence and obstructionism a result of inadequate resources? Nope. "The CDC's budget has ballooned from $590 million in 1987 to more than $8 billion last year. If the agency had grown with inflation since 1987, it would have a budget of about $1.3 billion today," Reason's Eric Boehm reported. The agency has all the money it needs for good or ill—and it's done ill in spades.
Perhaps inspired by the CDC's example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has also done its best to impede pandemic response by stealing medical supplies before they can reach hospitals and clinics. FEMA "is quietly seizing orders, leaving medical providers across the country in the dark about where the material is going and how they can get what they need to deal with the coronavirus pandemic," the Los Angeles Times reported back in April. Desperate state officials and medical providers turned to smuggling shipments to avoid federal hijacking.
The blustering, authoritarian, and confused tone set by the man in the White House may explain the problem. Trump uses much of his time in pandemic-related news briefings to snipe at political rivals—an analysis by Britain's The Independent found he spent 27 times longer attacking enemies than expressing sympathy for victims of the virus. Trump also touts dubious miracle cures for COVID-19, going so far as to apparently self-medicate himself with hydroxychloroquine (a drug useful for treating malaria and other ailments, but with serious side effects and offering no proven benefit in the treatment of COVID-19).
The vast, powerful, and incredibly intrusive federal bureaucracy is headed by Trump, who also petulantly invokes the Defense Production Act to forcibly reshape the production and distribution of goods in ways that are already underway, or else that make no sense and threaten to do more harm than good. No wonder lower-ranking federal officials feel obliged to get in everybody else's way. Federal seat-warmer see, federal seat-warmer do.
In an understandable search for a more-competent counterpart to the president, journalists and pundits have, less understandably, turned to state governors. In particular, they developed something of a shared crush on Andrew Cuomo. The New York governor and Democrat has become "the appointed darling to step into the ring and serve as pugilist against Trump in this crisis," as DePauw University communications professor Jeffrey McCall put it. CNN even indulges cringe-worthy "interviews" of the governor by his brother that would be considered clumsy even at Pravda-style media operations.
But while many journalists may prefer Cuomo's political affiliation and semi-coherent presentations over those of Trump, the governor has his own significant failings. To applaud Cuomo's handling of the pandemic is to praise his personal approach to snatching medical supplies and his proven ability at killing granny.
When COVID-19 settled in, Cuomo threatened to strip ventilators and personal protective equipment from upstate hospitals and ship them to hard-hit New York City. Presented as an example of tough decision-making, the move—put off when upstaters pushed back hard—is better viewed as the governor taking care of city residents who vote for him at the expense of those in northern and western counties who don't.
New Yorkers who won't ever again vote for anybody include nursing home residents who died of COVID-19 as a result of the state's arrogance-fueled venture into inadvertent biological warfare. "More than 4,500 recovering coronavirus patients were sent to New York's already vulnerable nursing homes under a controversial state directive that was ultimately scrapped amid criticisms it was accelerating the nation's deadliest outbreaks," the AP reported last week.
That revelation prompted the governor to back off his earlier vow to investigate nursing home conduct and penalize those that had put the elderly at risk. After all, the investigation threatened to implicate its instigators—especially since nursing home operators had warned that his policy was deadly.
"Multiple states are considering adopting an order similar to what was issued in New York that requires every nursing home to admit hospital patients who have not been tested for COVID-19 and to admit patients who have tested positive," cautioned the American Health Care Association on March 28. "This approach will introduce the highly contagious virus into more nursing homes. There will be more hospitalizations for nursing home residents who need ventilator care and ultimately, a higher number of deaths."
Sure enough, as of May 23, close to 6,000 people in New York nursing homes were confirmed or presumed dead due to Covid-19, according to state figures—about one-fifth of the state's total dead from the pandemic.
If Trump is a walking, talking disaster as executive leaders of crisis responses go, and if Cuomo offers only a more crowd-pleasing brand of bungling, where do we look for competence? As is often the case when leaders seem determined to guide their followers over a cliff, wisdom can best be found among those who reject such leadership and set out to do things on their own, in voluntary cooperation with others.
Helen Chu, director of the Seattle Flu Study, ignored federal rules to identify the presence of the novel coronavirus in Washington state.
Businesses and hobbyists donated personal protective equipment to medical providers to make up the shortfall (my son's school used its otherwise idled 3D printers to produce hundreds of face shields for medical providers).
Individuals started social-distancing well before any government officials told them to do so—and then eased back into regular patterns of life according to their own judgment, ahead of official permission.
Companies, such as Apple and Google, raced to develop contact-tracing technology that couldn't be used by governments for surveillance.
Parents and students explored learning at home when schools shut down—and many decided they like it and might continue in the future.
And so much more …
Throughout this pandemic, competent and responsible responses have come not from presidents and governors, but from people and organizations taking the initiative to help each other and themselves. Absent political officials to boss us around and lead us down blind alleys, it turns out that we do pretty well. We might do even better if presidents, governors, and other officials would stay out of the way.