Not since the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918, has the United States and the world faced such a crippling and devastating health crisis. Covid 19 is touching nearly every nation on every continent and government leaders and policymakers are scrambling to not only battle the novel coronavirus but deal with the economic and financial devastation it is leaving in its wake. Regardless of where the virus started, government leaders are trying to contain it until a vaccine or treatment is found that will save lives. The problem is that President Donald Trump is failing to take a leadership role that governors in the United States can look to for guidance and that leaders in other nations can use as a blueprint for the situation in their own country.
The United States has faced severe crisis in the past, and American presidents have reacted in different ways. When the stock market crashed in 1929 and resulted in the start of the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover took a hands-off approach. He wanted local charities to handle the long bread lines that were the result of massive unemployment that threw millions of Americans into sudden poverty. For Hoover, it was not the government’s job to feed the starving masses nor give them any kind of temporary relief. However, Franklin D. Roosevelt took an entirely different approach that was diametrically opposite of his successor, Herbert Hoover. Roosevelt took the first step in allaying people’s fears in his inauguration address and then got to work. He took action through legislation that made serious changes in people’s lives and gave them hope for the future in which they could get through a devastating economic calamity.
We have not seen such actions from Donald Trump who still insists on upsetting the apple cart and making himself the center of attention. Even if this involves thumbing his nose in the face of hard scientific facts or ignoring cries of help from governors whose states are inundated with a multitude of people either ill or dying from Covid 19. From his failure to recognize or acknowledge that Covid 19 could be a danger to the American people based on reports from the nation’s intelligence bureau to sweeping aside calls from governors for ventilators for sick patients and masks for nurses and doctors who come into contact with these same ill patients. The bottom line is that there has been a failure of leadership in the Oval Office that will cost the United States in so many different ways.
Lack of guidance to the states
Trump has acted more like an outsider rather than the Chief Executive giving guidance to the governors and the states. This can be seen where the United States falls way behind with testing and that governors scramble to find testing kits. This has forced governors to compete against each other in obtaining testing kits and paying exorbitant amounts for these items on the open market. The Trump Administration has failed to coordinate medical supply distribution between the various states resulting in the scramble for ventilators and protective equipment as well as such items as cotton swabs used in testing. This has caused thousands of people to go untested and spread the disease when many do not know if they are the carriers.
The lack of testing and contact tracing has only made things worse, not just in maximizing the spread of Covid 19 but with more people getting the disease it increases the chances of more sick people going to hospitals that are already inundated with severely ill patients. As stated by Cynthia Cox, director of the Peterson-Kaiser Health System Tracker, “The testing failure is putting additional strain on our already challenged health system. The combination of all of these factors will make the U.S. worse off than similar countries.” She stated this in March 2020 when the coronavirus was still in its early stages. That testing failure still persists today with the result in the number of deaths approaching 100,000 Americans by the end of May.
Part of this lack of guidance results in Trump blaming others. Particularly, Trump has taken to call Covid 19 the “Chinese virus”. This has resulted in racist attacks not only against China but also against Asian Americans, in general. This attack is part of Trump’s game plan of “I don’t take responsibility at all.” Others have picked up on this message such as Representative Jim Banks, Republican from Indiana, who has stated that there should be a movement to demand reparations from Beijing. But it does not end there in which conservative news outlets, social media platforms, and conservative Republicans in Congress are picking up the banner of this strategy. The sad part is that this is all part of Trump’s game plan of no guidance in a time a national crisis and to shift the nation’s focus on another entity rather than on himself or his administration. If anyone takes a contrarian stand, that party is regarded as a sympathizer to China and President Xi Jinping.
Lack of guidance also placed the nation’s governors in a difficult position. As a manger, Trump has given mixed signals that would confuse anyone. On the one hand, he stated that he was in charge and had “total” authority. However, he flatly stated that the governors call the shots. If this is not lack of guidance combined with poor management, not to mention a total failure of crisis management, then nothing is. Perhaps it was best put by former New Jersey governor, Chris Christiewho said, “People have to have realistic expectations – – and that may be where the president has failed. You’ve got to be able to say, ‘We’re going to do this as quickly as we can and we’re going to try to fix mistakes that occur as we find out about them.’ But you’re not going to be able to do both at the same time.”
Lack of financial aid
In order to best deal with the pandemic the nation faces, it takes tons of financial aid, or simply put, lots of money. This means providing states, hospitals, health care providers, and lab scientists with the funds to purchase the equipment and supplies they need to treat patients and find a vaccine and cure. But it has not happened from Trump resulting in another failure of leadership.
A key principle of leadership is that a leader or manager must be able to provide those working under that leader the proper tools to deal with a crisis as well as enough of those resources. It has not occurred under the Trump Administration. Rather than make supplies available to those who need it, the Trump Administration has flatly stated that the federal government is a “supplier of last resort” and that the states are really on their own. Trump has plainly said, “It’s pretty simple. They (the states) have tremendous capacity. We hope to be able to help out.” In other words: “You, the states and your governors, are pretty much on your own. You figure it out.”
This involves testing, whether it is the supplies involved or having a standardized and nationally distributed universal test that all the states could use. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota has been calling for a new Marshall Plan to handle testing in the United States. The problem is that Trump and his team have not come through with such a plan or made the financial or medical resources available to the states or front-line personnel.
Osterholm has said that “We have had a number of our testing laboratories unable to get the needed reagents they could’ve and should’ve had to increase testing. We really need a Marshall Plan where the federal government and the private sector get together and decide what are the challenges, what can we do to quickly boost these reagents, what can we do to actually increase the reagent pool?” A Marshall Plan of this nature, even just for massive testing, would involve billions of dollars that the Trump Administration and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell are not willing to provide no matter what the ultimate results may be.
The Trump Administration has not only failed to provide the financial aid the states have needed but managed to decentralize the manner in which the pandemic is being handled. This is diametrically opposed to what has occurred in Canada. The Canadian federal government has become a centralized source of personal protective equipment (PPE) purchases. In Canada, the federal government has been purchasing supplies in huge amounts and taken charge in shipping them to its provinces based on need. This includes testing, as well. Just the opposite has happened in the United States in which the Trump Administration has acted in a haphazard manner and distributed needed supplies based on political cronyism.
Due to a lack of financial aid and poor management, drastic actions have been taken by the nation’s governors. For example, Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland hid thousands of coronavirus tests in an “undisclosed location” which he purchased from South Korea and placed under the protection of the state National Guard. He is deeply concerned that the federal government may seize them just like it did with 500 ventilators that Colorado’s governor requested. Trump, not to seem totally hard hearted, returned 100 ventilators to Colorado.
Failure to recognize and acknowledge a problem
A good manager or leader, even a halfway decent one, must be able to see a problem coming even if it is 100 miles away. Even if the manager or leader cannot see the problem that far away, then he or she must listen to the warnings that are coming from others, especially those whose job it is to see those problems that are on the horizon. Trump’s biggest failure as a leader was to ignore the warnings he received from his staff eventually leading to the pandemic the United States now faces.
As early as mid-January 2020, the White House was given intelligence reports warning of a possible pandemic and on January 18th, Health and Human Services Secretary Azar talked with Trump about the possibility of the coronavirus as American diplomats were taken out of Wuhan. On January 20th, Covid 19 was confirmed in the United States and South Korea. The South Korean government took immediate action by enlisting medical companies in developing mass produced test kits. Trump, however, failed to act.
Rather than inform the American people what was occurring, on January 22nd, Trump stated that, “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China. We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” In other words, he played down the possible threat Covid 19 could have to the nation’s security and economic well-being and that the risk was small to none. He was more concerned the effect the truth could have on the stock market and on the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
Rather than enacting the proper steps for a crisis management situation, Trump decided on a policy of going it alone in dealing with Covid 19 and told his administration officials as well as Republican lawmakers to expand their financial and economic proposals in order to punish China. Even with the intelligence reports from his staff, Trump acted as if life would go on in a normal fashion: hosting large events at Mar-a-Largo, playing golf, going to fundraisers, failure to wear a surgical mask or practice social distancing in order to stem spread of the disease.
Even subsequent events have shown a failure of leadership by Trump. Whether it has been his whole hearted endorsement of hydroxychloroquine, suggesting the ingestion of bleach or disinfectant to combat the disease, or under the skin exposure to high intensity light, there has been a failure of leadership that has caused his approval numbers to fall precipitously and his possibilities of re-election in the fall to be seriously in doubt.