Pollak: New York Shows No Government Was Fully Prepared for Coronavirus

New York City skyline at sunrise (Johannes Eisele / AFP / Getty)
Johannes Eisele / AFP / Getty

The assessments of the federal government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak have already begun.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) — who was holding his doomed impeachment trial as coronavirus arrived in the U.S. — has proposed a bill to create a 9/11-style commission.

That bill is likely dead on arrival, but some kind of examination is inevitable.

When it happens, it should note that no government — federal, state, or local — was fully prepared to meet the challenge of the new pandemic.

Take New York, for example. The New York Times — which is determined to scapegoat President Donald Trump, and conservative media, for the outbreak — nonetheless reported last week that New York State had been slow to respond.

“The federal response was chaotic. Even so, the state’s and city’s own initial efforts failed to keep pace with the outbreak, the Times found.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio encouraged residents to go on with life as normal, well into mid-March.

The Times added: “For many days after the first positive test, as the coronavirus silently spread throughout the New York region, Mr. Cuomo, Mr. de Blasio and their top aides projected an unswerving confidence that the outbreak would be readily contained.”

“[W]e don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries,” said Cuomo on March 2.

And yet Cuomo has emerged, somehow, as a media darling during the coronavirus crisis, though he has arguably mismanaged it.

Other Democrats also dropped the ball.

We know already that the Obama administration failed to replenish the stockpile of supplies that President George W. Bush created.

Moreover, if there were any state or local governments that had been prepared in advance, we would have heard about them by now.

None were, and the media, desperate to find alternatives to President Donald Trump (and with opponent Joe Biden confined to a bunker in Wilmington, Delaware), have focused on hailing Democratic governors like Cuomo, even when they responded belatedly to the threat.

(The Wall Street Journal noted some governors on both sides have earned bipartisan support during the crisis. But none — not one — saw it coming.)

Last week, I posed a rare question on Twitter asking for any examples of state or local governments that had been prepared.

Were there any that had stockpiles of ventilators, of N95 respirator masks, of personal protective equipment (PPE)? Were there any state governments that had pre-existing partnerships with the private sector to develop rapid tests for a new pandemic, or to track people who had been exposed to possible infection?

The effort came up empty.

Ironically, there were two such governments that had once been somewhat prepared: California, and New York City.

In both of these cases, Republican leaders prepared for possible pandemics by stocking up on emergency supplies, which were later auctioned off or otherwise removed by their Democratic successors, and which were never replaced.

It is worth examining the circumstances in which then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg (now a Democrat) acted.

Both did so in the wake of efforts by President Bush to encourage pandemic preparedness — and in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when the mainstream media punished Bush for what they portrayed as a lackluster federal response to the disaster (though state and local authorities deserved more of the blame).

Though the anthrax attacks that followed 9/11 suggested the possibility of a terror attack using a biological weapon, and the SARS outbreak in Asia in 2002 raised the possibility of a pandemic, it was Katrina that seemed to inspire action.

Schwarzenegger and Bloomberg realized the mainstream media would never forgive a lapse by a Republican governor.

(Notably, there do not seem to have been any Democrat governors or mayors who took the same lessons from Katrina: they knew the media would never hold them accountable, just as it is not holding them accountable now.)

Every level of government, including the Trump administration, was aware that a pandemic could occur. And there was even some effort to prepare: President Trump issued a new pandemic strategy in November 2019, and an executive order on vaccines in September.

But much of the focus was on influenza, not a SARS-like disease. Moreover, the fact that recent outbreaks, such as MERS, turned out to be less widespread than feared may have created a false sense of security.

The only governments anywhere in the world that were well prepared were a few in Asia — like South Korea and Taiwan — that had been hit hard by MERS five years ago. In response, they developed a rapid-response testing system and encouraged the public to wear masks in case of an outbreak.

The fact that these insights were not transmitted around the world is among the many failings of the World Health Organization (WHO) that must be examined carefully once the worst of the crisis is over.

In retrospect, it will be clear to all that the West in general should have been better prepared for the coronavirus outbreak — that the unique conditions of rapid industrialization in certain parts of the world, alongside persistent pastoral cultures, facilitates the movement of viruses from animals to the human population.

Moreover, the growing integration of the global economy means that those viruses can travel quickly. That is why many of the recent viral outbreaks have begun in China.

But any honest inquiry must note: not one Western government was fully ready, nor were state and local governments.

We had seawalls, at best; what arrived was not a tide, but a tsunami.

And we cannot ignore that when the coronavirus began, Washington was distracted by a pointless, partisan trial to remove the president, who was the one person doing anything about the problem.

If Trump had taken more drastic action, that would have been taken as evidence of “abuse of power.”

One day, when a coronavirus commission is finally formed, Schiff will have some explaining to do.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). His new book, RED NOVEMBER, is available for pre-order. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.


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