Leadership in Times of Crisis: Success and Failure in Response to COVID-19

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Dr. Anthony Fauci (left) and Vice President Mike Pence (right) at a daily coronavirus briefing. Photo Courtesy of Flickr.

The world is currently facing one of the most urgent crises it’s ever faced, a global pandemic which has put the globe on the brink of disaster. In the midst of the chaos, one would hope they could find solace in the wise words of their leader, a guiding beacon of light through these troubling times. However, these hopes are dashed by the bumbling President who makes false claims, crosses his experts, and refuses to take responsibility for his administration’s botching of the crisis.

Under pressure, the leader has cracked, lashing out at journalists and chastising governors hard at work trying to alleviate the crisis. He appointed his Vice President, Mike Pence, a man who has dismissed science of various occasions, as head of the task force given the challenge of handling the nation’s response. Pence has repeatedly dismissed science in the past, as Governor of Indiana, his response to an HIV outbreak in the state was to “pray on it”. Trump’s appointment of Pence to this vital role was widely regarded as foolish and questionable. As Trump has failed, others have succeeded. Andrew Cuomo, New York’s Democratic governor who languished at 44% approval in February, has taken decisive action and displayed competence in his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, seeing his approval rating surge to over 80% in a recent Fox poll. The same poll said that over 70% of registered Republicans see Cuomo’s handling of the situation as a success. 

Ohio’s Republican Governor Mike DeWine took decisive action before a single case of COVID-19 was reported in his state. DeWine called for lock-downs and quickly disbanded planned public gatherings. His precautions could not avoid the virus from infecting Ohio, with over 1600 Ohioans testing positive to date, however it did prevent the further spread. DeWine has also been vocal about the need for medical masks and other supplies. Similar to DeWine, Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Andy Beshear acted quickly and was able to stifle extreme growth of the outbreak. In the midst of the crisis, former governor Matt Bevin tweeted comments taunting Beshear’s extreme response leading to acknowledgement of Beshear’s successful tactics by Kentuckians on both sides of the aisle.

Across the nation, governors from both parties have shown remarkable strength in handling this unprecedented crisis while in the White House, President Trump has failed the test. His inability to understand the true scope of any issue has reared its head as he seems completely unaware at how grave of an issue this pandemic truly is.

Maryland’s Republican Governor, Larry Hogan, who heads the National Governors Association said on CNN on March 31 that no state in the union had enough personal protective equipment for doctors after stating earlier in the day that the President’s claims that the testing shortages in the United States had been alleviated were “just not true.” Massachusetts’ Repubublican Governor Charlie Baker was so short on supplies that he had to ask New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft to buy masks. Kraft brought in 1 million masks on the Patriots team plane after the US government confiscated masks to put in the federal stockpile despite the Massachusetts government purchasing the masks with their own money.

On the topic of the federal stockpile, President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, made the uninformed claim that the federal stockpile was “not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use”. This claim was quickly rebuked however a day later, the language on the government’s website was changed to reflect Kushner’s remarks despite the fact that, according to the Governor of Kansas, Democrat Laura Kelly, “That is absolutely not the way it is supposed to work”. The government lied rather than accept their mistake, an action which not only continued to perpetuate a falsehood which, if enforced could hurt the American people, but also showed how faulted the executive branch has become so much so that they’d rather continue spouting a distortion of the truth rather than accept that they’d made a mistake.

Trump’s compulsive lying has not been tempered by the crisis before him, he has claimed nobody saw this coming. The Obama administration made a 69-page “pandemic playbook” in the wake of Ebola and even had crisis workshops with the Trump team during the transition. Trump claimed that the US had enough test kits. In reality, the United States was embarrassingly under-prepared when it came to testing with the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) telling Congress that our lack of testing was a failure. Trump promised the American people a vaccine, a claim that his own Health and Human Services Secretary, Alex Azar, rebuked. His flagrant lie that he had been calling it a pandemic since day one highlights his inability to accept errors in his ways. He didn’t call it a pandemic. He called the panic by Democrats over the rising case count a “new hoax” to get him impeached. He downplayed the infections as diagnoses soared. He claimed that the media and Democrats hoped that this crisis will get worse because it would hurt his reelection. 

President Trump speaking at the March 30 daily coronavirus briefing. Photo Courtesy of Flickr.

As bad as his lies are, the worst thing of all may have come on Friday, March 13. The Chief Executive of the United States stood before cameras sending out a broadcast to millions of frightened Americans and said, “I don’t take any responsibility at all” when asked about the lack of testing which has become a central point in the United States’ failure to respond to the pandemic. He blamed President Obama, pointing to the swine flu outbreak in 2009, and viciously clashed with a reporter for asking a “nasty question”. In front of the nation, the President failed to lead. Leaders mess up and errors usually don’t irreparably tarnish their credibility. However, when a leader makes a mistake, they should own up to it. JFK humbled himself and took responsibility for the botched Bay of Pigs Invasion, Nixon accepted the weight of his crimes in an interview with David Frost, Reagan stood on national television and apologized for lying to the American people about the Iran-Contra Affair, Bill Clinton went so far as to say sorry twice, saying that he thought his first apology wasn’t good enough. All of these presidents, however faulted, admitted they had made a mistake and confessed their sins, so to speak, to the American people. Trump, however, refuses to admit his blame for dismantling pandemic response teams and proposing budgets that would cut the CDC’s funding (it should be noted that those budgets were not accepted by Congress). 

On March 31, Senate Majority Leader and Trump ally Mitch McConnell blamed the delayed response of the outbreak on the impeachment trial which he said “diverted the attention” of the government as the disease spread in the United States. These claims show more lack of responsibility from some leaders in Washington who wish to avert the blame from themselves. The President held six campaign rallies during the trial, casting doubt on the fact that he was distracted by much of anything.

The pattern of Trump’s allies defending him and doing anything they can to stand by him continues even in the midst of an unprecedented national emergency the likes of which have never been seen. Fox News cut off a doctor who criticized Trump despite his statements being true. Although many states are on stay-at-home orders, there are a few states that are not. All of these states have Republican governors who have shown support for the President in the past, they have echoed his talking points from early in the outbreak, minimizing the scale and threat. Georgia’s Gov. Brian Kemp, a Trump-supporting Republican, went as far as to say that he did not know that the disease could be spread by asymptomatic people to justify not shutting down the state. Not only had that information been publicly available for months, but Georgia is the home to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) an agency which had previously warned of the dangers of the virus. Yet despite this, Kemp claimed to have not known about this, thereby justifying his decision not to shut the state down. Even when he issued a stay-at-home order, he kept the state’s beaches open for spring breakers, displaying a level of flippancy towards facts which the President has repeatedly shown.

Let’s be clear, the virus itself is not Trump’s fault. However, the US’ failure to respond to the threat is. As the CDC’s Nancy Messonnier said that there may be a disruption in everyday life for Americans, Trump preached a different story claiming the virus was completely under control and even reprimanding Azar, whose Department of Health and Human Services contains the CDC, for allowing Messonnier to say this. As the disease continued to take hold in America, it became clear that the country lacked not only tests but protective equipment for medical professionals and ventilators. Instead of addressing the shortages effectively, Trump lied about how many ventilators had been sent to the needy New York, a claim which Gov. Cuomo blasted as “ignorant” and “uninformed”.

The fact that the supposed leader of the free world is making ignorant and uninformed claims should be alarming as the crisis continues to worsen. The lack of leadership from the lying to the dismissal of blame shows how poorly Trump is handling this situation. The United States wants him to handle this situation well whether they agree with his policies or not because this is not a matter of politics, this is a matter of life or death. 

Both red and blue politicians across the nation are taking drastic actions to curb the spread of the virus and their efforts should be applauded. During this time, Americans should listen to those who are leading by example, the governors who are working their hardest including Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, who has come under fire from the President (who will not call her by name) while tirelessly doing all she can to ease the strain of the outbreak in Michigan. Her vocal response has only furthered her high popularity in the state. Another leader who has provided a role model for Americans is Dr. Anthony Fauci, the aforementioned NIAID director who has become an icon for his expertise during this time even with the constant falsehoods coming from the White House. Throughout this maelstrom of fear, not only have these prominent figures displayed the capacity to perform under pressure but they have displayed something Americans have come to miss in a leader, hard work. Along with these more known faces, the doctors, emergency responders, delivery people, essential service members, store owners, and so many more have worked behind the scenes to do all they can despite the highest office in the land fumbling the response. The next few weeks may be frightening, sorrowful, grief-stricken, and so many more awful things but remember, behind the scenes, thousands are working to do all they can, taking charge of the response and providing America with the leadership and know-how it needs to defeat this virus.