Eight interminable months into the coronavirus pandemic, over 11 million people have been infected in the United States alone, while we're rapidly approaching a quarter of a million deaths. As the Trump administration would have it, there's nothing much to see here, despite the dizzying and debilitating rise in cases. If you're looking for a dose of presidential reason on the subject, consider looking instead to President Barack Obama, who has shared a blistering litany of criticisms on where the Trump administration went wrong with regard to COVID-19.
In a sprawling interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, timed to the publication of the first volume of his post-presidential memoir, A Promised Land, Obama reflects on the dismal trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic, ruminating on the myriad ways that President Donald Trump failed to contain the deadly virus—and what he’d have done differently. Obama was quick to condemn the White House’s anti-science mentality, arguing that a rigorous, apolitical adherence to medical guidelines would have resulted in a dramatically different outcome. Obama said:
“There is little doubt that if we had had a White House that from the start had said, ‘Let’s follow the science, let’s take this seriously’—if they had reinforced the message coming from people like Dr. Fauci and not politicized basic preventive measures like wearing masks, if they had not been intent on rushing the reopening and downplaying the severity of the pandemic across the primary channels that a big chunk of the country gets its news from—some lives could have been saved and we would have had better control of this.”
Obama also criticized the Trump administration’s refusal to fund widespread test and trace measures, citing those public health provisions as crucial to controlling outbreaks. Obama said:
“It’s also fair to say that had we taken better steps to contact-trace and set up testing protocols earlier, it is likely that we would not have seen severe outbreaks everywhere and we might have been able to reduce the severity of the pandemic in certain portions of the country.”
But all hope isn’t lost. Obama pointed to the appointment of President Elect Joe Biden’s chief-of-staff, Ron Klain, as a signal that the Biden administration means business on controlling COVID-19. Klain, who coordinated the federal response to the ebola outbreak under the Obama administration, is a pandemic-response veteran who will advocate for an aggressive response to the virus.
“The good news is that Joe Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, was my point person on Ebola,” Obama said. “He knows how to work on these big public-health issues, and they’ve already surrounded themselves with the right people who are going to be applying the very best science and technology and organizational measures to this problem.”
As for emerging news about the development of promising vaccines, with early data showing that Pfizer’s vaccine is 90% effective and Moderna’s vaccine is 94.5% effective, Obama sees light at the end of the tunnel—albeit obscured by administrative challenges and anti-vaxxer rhetoric.
“The vaccine looks hopeful,” Obama said. “It’s going to be a challenge both distributing it and also overcoming some of the mistrust that has developed from misinformation and bad messaging early on. We’ll get through this. But we’re making it harder than it should be. It would have been hard no matter what, but we’ve made it harder.”
Exacerbating these issues, Obama believes, is the Trump administration’s resistance to a smooth transfer of power. As Trump continues to forbid the Biden administration from entering transition talks with public health officials, countless lives hang in the balance.
“For all the differences between myself and George W. Bush, he and his administration could not have been more gracious and intentional about ensuring a smooth handoff,” Obama said. “One of the really distressing things about the current situation is the amount of time that is being lost because of Donald Trump’s petulance and the unwillingness of other Republicans to call him on it.”
In just 65 days, President Elect Biden will take office, but until then, there's a long, harrowing road ahead of us. Take it from Obama: wear your mask, wash your hands, and let's all get there in one piece.
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