US reflects on COVID response failures

By BELINDA ROBINSON in New York | China Daily | Updated: 2022-05-19 07:27
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Mixed messaging on COVID-19 prevention in public spaces, such as New York City's bustling Times Square, pictured Tuesday, has been blamed for the spread of the virus. WANG YING/XINHUA

Govt's mixed messaging, public attitudes to face masks and jabs, helped spread virus, analysts say

Editor's note: As the United States reaches 1 million COVID-19 deaths, this page looks at the devastating economic and societal effects of the pandemic.

The statistic is stark: 1 million.

It is a number that's been everywhere this month in the United States, where COVID-19 has killed more people than in any other nation, accounting for over one-fifth of the world total.

The global powerhouse, which boasts vast scientific, healthcare and economic resources, has lost more lives to the coronavirus than during World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf and Afghanistan wars combined.

While the relatives of the dead mourn their lost loved ones, they also join public health experts in asking what went wrong-and did 1 million really have to die?

The rapid transmission of the previously unknown virus, SARS-CoV-2, was branded a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020. It was silent, spread through the air, and disproportionately infected and killed the elderly, those with poor immune systems and even healthy people.

Many blame politics and politicians for what went wrong.

"The United States was not unified in its response at the beginning of the pandemic around mask-wearing and social distancing in the Trump administration," Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told China Daily. "I do think the administration did downplay the virus, as well as problems with our testing platforms and unified messaging."

Former president Donald Trump purposely downplayed the severity of COVID-19. In February 2020, he revealed details of the virus to the public, saying it was "no worse than the flu", was "under control", and would disappear.

However, in private, Trump knew it was "deadly", according to the book Rage by veteran Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward.

In a private phone call on Feb 7, 2020, Trump acknowledged to Woodward that "you just breathe the air and that's how it's passed. And so that's a very tricky one. That's a very delicate one. It's also more deadly than even your strenuous flus."

On March 19, 2020, Trump admitted that downplaying the virus was part of his strategy to minimize the danger. "I wanted to always play it down," he told Woodward. "I still like playing it down because I don't want to create a panic."

William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, told China Daily: "Coronavirus will never disappear or vanish, unlike statements made out of Washington. That won't happen."

The US government's structure meant that much of the pandemic response was left to state and local leaders. There was no central unified message from the federal government, which resulted in varying guidance on lockdowns, mask-wearing and stay-at-home orders in Republican-run and Democrat-run states.

While the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initially told the public that the threat from COVID-19 was low in February 2020, the agency acknowledged that disruptions to daily life could be "severe".

After that admission, the CDC was all but silenced by the Trump administration.

Trump became the main source of public information in the early days of the pandemic in the US, often touting unproven remedies as cures, such as the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine. Subsequently, someone reportedly died from wrongfully ingesting a compound containing chloroquine.

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