Inside America’s two-decade failure to prepare for coronavirus
The nation’s health secretary was warned about a possible pandemic — and, he admits now, he didn’t take that first warning seriously enough. But he studied with experts at the Centers of Disease Control. He read papers on virology. He took his concerns to the president. And months later, the administration unveiled a plan to tackle the virus emerging out of Asia, investing in therapies and warning Americans to stock up on canned goods.
It’s a moment that feels ripped from the headlines about the current coronavirus crisis. But the year was 2005, not 2020.
And for his troubles, that health secretary — Bush appointee Mike Leavitt — was mocked as an alarmist by political rivals and late-night comics, even as that year’s threat of avian flu petered out around the globe.
“Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt recommended that Americans store canned tuna and powdered milk under their beds for when bird flu hits,” host Jay Leno said on the Tonight Show in 2006, a recurring bit where he ridiculed Leavitt’s warnings. “What? … Powdered milk and tuna? How many would rather have the bird flu?”
Speaking to POLITICO this month, Leavitt described a trap that health and national security officials know too well: Prepare too early and you’re called Chicken Little. Act too late — and millions may die.
“In advance of a pandemic, anything you say sounds alarmist,” Leavitt explained. “After a pandemic starts, everything you’ve done is inadequate.”
The Trump administration has taken the brunt of the blame for America’s lack of preparedness for the Covid-19 pandemic, which has caught the world’s wealthiest nation embarrassingly off-guard and plunged it into an economic and health catastrophe. But the cycle of inattention has roots far deeper than that, according to interviews with top policymakers from three administrations covering 20 years.
After each major health crisis of the last two decades, American health and political leaders have launched preparedness programs and issued blunt warnings to their successors — only to watch as those programs were defunded, staff was allowed to depart and Washington forgot the stark lessons it had just learned.
That cycle then accelerated during the tumultuous Trump administration, said the health officials interviewed for this story, nearly all of whom cited Trump’s willingness to disregard evidence and stick with his gut as the coronavirus threat menaced the nation.