Trump’s Mismanagement of the Covid-19 Crisis: South Korea Shows What Would Have Been Possible

Source:  David Leonhardt, Newsletter of April 13, 2020, The New York Times

I normally only include charts I have developed myself in this blog, but the chart above, from David Leonhardt of the New York Times, is particularly striking.  It comes from his newsletter of April 13, and shows the daily number of deaths (on a seven-day moving average) per 10 million people, from February 19 to now in the US and in South Korea.

It shows what the US could have achieved had the Trump administration managed this crisis as well as South Korea has.  And one cannot argue that South Korea is a rich country with resources that the US does not have – GDP per capita in the US is double that of South Korea.  Nor is it because of travel bans.  Trump repeatedly asserts that the crisis would have been far greater in the US had he not had the singular wisdom to impose a ban on travel (by non-US citizens) from China on February 2 (and from Europe and other countries later).  But the only travel ban South Korea has imposed has been travel from Hubei Province in China.  And South Korea has far more contact with China, from both business and personal travel and trade in goods, than the US has.  Yet despite this, the deaths from Covid-19 have been far fewer in South Korea than in the US even after scaling for population.

And it is not only South Korea that has demonstrated competence in the management of the Covid-19 virus.  Death rates in other countries of East Asia, all similarly heavily exposed to China, have been even lower than that of South Korea.  In terms of the cumulative number of deaths from Covid-19 since the crisis began (as of April 13), there have been 4 deaths per million of population in South Korea, but just 2 per million in Singapore, 1 per million in Japan, 0.5 per million in Hong Kong, and 0.3 per million in Taiwan.  For the US, in contrast, the total is 71 per million.  (Reminder:  The chart above tracks deaths per day, not the cumulative total, and shows the figures per 10 million of population.)

This also shows that Trump’s repeated assertion that the deaths suffered in the US were inevitable – that nothing more could have been done – is simply nonsense.  Sadly, it is deadly nonsense.  South Korea shows what could have been done.  Travel bans were not important.  Rather, it was the basic public health measures of large-scale testing, identifying those with the virus or who may have been exposed to the virus, quarantining or isolating those exposed (including self-isolating, along with self-monitoring and regular reporting), and then treating in hospitals those who developed severe symptoms.

None of this is new to public health professionals.  And the US has excellent public health professionals.  What was different in the US was Trump, who refused to listen to them and indeed treated many of those in government as enemies to be attacked (as those with expertise were seen as members of the “deep state”).

The US had prepared plans on what to do should an infectious disease such as Covid-19 threaten.  There was, for example, a major effort to develop such plans in 2006/2007, towards the end of the Bush administration.  The work included running exercises similar to war-games of various scenarios (“table-top” exercises), to see how officials would respond and what the likely outcomes then would be.  These plans were further developed during Obama’s two terms in office.  But the Trump administration then ignored this previous preparation, and indeed took pride in dismantling important elements of it.

Dr. James Lawler, now an infectious disease doctor at the University of Nebraska but then serving in the Bush White House, participated in the 2006/2007 task force.  Over the weekend, the New York Times released a trove of over 80 pages of emails (obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request) of late-January to mid-March from Dr. Lawler and other experts, in and out of government, discussing how to address the crisis.  Particularly telling is a March 12 email from Dr. Lawler in which he said:

“We are making every misstep initially made in the table-tops at the outset of pandemic planning in 2006.  We had systematically addressed all of these and had a plan that would work – and has worked in Hong Kong/Singapore.  We have thrown 15 years of institutional learning out the window …”

Throwing those 15 years of institutional learning out the window has had deadly consequences.