The Time Trump Tried to Withdraw from the WHO (with Katherine Eban)
Of all the dumb decisions FPOTUS made in the early months of the pandemic, this might have been the dumbest.
May 29, 2020 was a Friday—the Friday after Memorial Day, which was the first federal holiday after the country shut down in March. Mike Pence was nominally in charge of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. We wouldn’t know it until July, when Katherine Eban reported on it in Vanity Fair, but Jared Kushner had already assembled his own shadow task force, commissioned a proposal on how to slow the spread of covid-19, and then ignored the recommendations because he thought the pandemic would only hit the blue states. In New York, Andrew Cuomo was giving daily covid-19 updates. The rest of us were hoarding toilet paper and trying not to die.
As it happens, I wrote a PREVAIL column that day, so I have some inkling of the mood—both mine and the nation’s. Like most Americans, I was working from home during quarantine. (This was the era of wiping down cereal boxes with 409 when you returned from the grocery store.) Here is my report on May 29, 2020:
For the last ten weeks, time feels different. The pace of life has slowed from Mission: Impossible to Marcel Proust. Amazon Prime doesn’t deliver in two days anymore. Zappos took almost two weeks to bring sneakers that would usually arrive in 24 hours. I bought the Risk board game a month ago, and it’s still not here. When people say, “Let’s reconnect next week,” that means in two weeks, and “tomorrow” now means “sometime before the weekend.” This is not bad, necessarily. It’s just different than what we’ve been accustomed to all these years—as when you take the off-ramp after a long trip on the highway, and have to suddenly drive 35 instead of 70. At first it’s annoying, having to go so slow, but once you get accustomed to the reduced speed, you realize there’s so much more to take in, when you’re not rushing along like you’re being chased by ringwraiths in Escalades.
And this was my wrap-up of that week’s grim news:
Even so, things feel more desperate, more uncertain. Yet another racist cop murdered a defenseless black man, while his colleagues watched, while horrified bystanders took video. Protests in Minneapolis escalated to property damage, almost certainly started by out-of-towners and plants, by the way, to make it look worse for propaganda purposes.
Police arrested a CNN crew. Donald John Trump tweeted that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a call to violence so brazen that Twitter labeled it as such.
All of this as the American death toll from covid-19 hit triple figures.
At the time, “triple figures” still sounded ominous. I scarcely could have imagined that the U.S. death toll from covid-19 would far exceed a million.
By May 29, 2020, Trump had already made decisions that would doom so many Americans. He’d shelved Nancy Messonnier, the CDC’s incident manager for the covid-19 response, because her dire messaging ran counter to his sunshiny promises that one day, the virus would just go away. In her place was Deborah Birx, with her bright scarves and brighter forecasts. He’d replaced Alex Azar, the Health & Human Services secretary, who had initially been in charge of the White House pandemic response team and seemed up to the task, with the useless Mike Pence. He’d empowered Kushner and taken his ghoulish advice, effectively signing a death warrant for hundreds of thousands of Americans, including many of his more fervent supporters. He blew hot and cold on the subject of covid testing; he insisted anyone could get a test who wanted one, which was not true, while also discouraging a program of widespread testing because he feared the infection numbers going up. He’d begun to politicize the wearing of masks. Oh, and I almost forgot—he suggested that people should inject bleach to kill the virus.
The dice were already cast, and they’d come up snake eyes.
But Trump was not content. He needed to screw up even more, to cost even more lives. So on May 29, 2020, he announced that the United States would withdraw from the World Health Organization.
“Public health experts legitimately freaked out,” Eban, my guest on today’s PREVAIL podcast, who has covered covid-19 for years as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, recalls. “In the middle of his pandemic response, [Trump] basically went nativist and said we were going to go it on our own.”
To call this a foolish decision is an insult to fools. Pulling out of the WHO during a global pandemic is akin to closing every U.S. ports to European cargo ships full of grain during a domestic famine.
“The collaboration, the global cooperation,” Eban says of the importance of the WHO. “It’s not just when there’s a hair-on-fire emergency. It’s continuous. It’s training, it’s all kinds of reciprocity, sharing of genomic data. It’s how we get our flu vaccines. . . . When it comes to global public health, not being a member of the WHO is, like, insanity.”
This is clear from the news coverage of the May 29 announcement. The first paragraph of the Politico story calls this “an unprecedented move that could undermine the global coronavirus response and make it more difficult to stamp out other disease threats.” The next graf explains Trump’s thinking, so called, on the subject:
Trump has criticized the United Nations health agency for failing to quickly sound the alarm when the novel virus emerged and accused it of helping China cover up the threat it posed. “Countless lives have been taken and profound economic hardship has been inflicted all around the globe,” Trump said in a brief statement from the White House.
This is like saying that because the fire alarms didn’t work well enough to contain the blaze, we should remove all existing fire alarms—and, also, that fire alarms are all engaged in a covert conspiracy to cover up Chinese arson. The decision to bail on the WHO during the global pandemic may well be the single dumbest thing Trump did in his four years in Washington—and that’s saying something.
Fortunately, pulling out of the WHO is not something that can be done overnight. But Trump did his best to hack away at this important international body, just as he tried his damnedest to kill off NATO.
“How many American lives would have been spared,” I wrote last month, “had Trump and Kushner not poured gasoline on the SARS-CoV-2 fire?”
As a University of Connecticut study determined,
the U.S. COVID-19 mortality rate for 2020, adjusted for population, was more than twice as high as Canada’s and Germany’s; ten times higher than India’s; 29 times higher than Australia’s; 40 times higher than Japan’s; 59 times higher than South Korea’s, and 207 times higher than New Zealand’s mortality rate. In fact, U.S. performance at the level of South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, or Japan in containing the pandemic would have saved over 300,000 American lives in 2020 alone.
That is inexcusable. That is gross negligence on the grandest possible scale. It’s so fucking evil it boggles the mind.
It is absolutely critical that we not tempt fate by installing another anti-science fascist in the White House.
“We all need to think in political terms about who we’re electing,” Eban says. “Look at [Ron] DeSantis, who has pivoted to a sort of strangely antivax, or vaccine skeptic, platform, when he initially championed the rollout of the covid vaccine. . . . Will the antivax sentiment become a sort of litmus test for a Republican presidential candidate?”
In retrospect, we got lucky with covid-19. We had the worst president in our nation’s history, a filthy criminal, surrounded by corrupt and venal sycophants, making crap decision after crap decision, and we somehow, by the grace of god, managed to avoid a public health catastrophe that looked like The Stand. We cannot, as a nation or as a species, make the same mistake twice. Mother Nature might not be so kind the next time around.
SARS-CoV-3 is coming, health experts say; it’s only a question of when and of how bad. Our only defense against the next contagion is competent leadership. The party of Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar is incapable of providing that sort of leadership. We must keep them out of power.
As Stephen King—who knows a thing or two about plagues—wrote, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, shame on both of us.”
LISTEN TO THE PODCAST
S5 E1: SEASON PREMIERE: The Shifting Calculus of Covid-19 (with Katherine Eban)
Can the U.S. survive another pandemic? In the Season 5 Premiere, Greg Olear talks to Vanity Fair contributing editor Katherine Eban about the perils of the generic drug boom, her 2020 reporting on Jared Kushner and the botched pandemic response, and her current reporting on our preparedness to a potential new coronavirus outbreak.
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Photo credit: U.S. Mission Geneva/ Eric Bridiers. World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.
In all the 30 years of working at a grocery store I never thought I would be scared to go to my job .....but in 2020 that happened & it was terrifying. In fact had to sign an OSHA waiver to wear a mask because NOBODY HAD CONSIDERED IT YET 🙃. Thanks trump.
How tRump and his minions continue to evade justice is beyond me. I'm sick and tired of another justice official or gand jury announcing 'possibly', 'may' or 'might' indict.