In 2020, during the greatest public health emergency in 100 years, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said about the COVID pandemic, “We are at war. It’s a different type of war, but a war, nonetheless.”
Battling a pandemic is a special kind of war. Pandemics are not just a public health crisis. Like more traditional wars, they affect every aspect of life and society and demand decisive leadership at the top.
The Trump White House struggled to understand this, and our country suffered extensively as a result. In 2018, President Trump abolished the relevant National Security Council Directorate for Biosecurity, the office that I founded in 199 during the Bill Clinton administration and expanded under President George W. Bush. Trump’s action dissolved any semblance of a permanent integrated response command structure at the White House for dealing with biothreats and pandemics. His timing, given the events that followed, was devastating.
Then, when the pandemic struck, President Trump decided that the war against COVID-19 didn’t need to be led by a trained combatant commander, someone whose sole professional mission is to prepare for and lead a whole-of-government response to biological threats an approach that creates a shared vision, secures coordination and cooperation across federal departments and agencies and implements the response under a single commander. Instead of a competent U.S. operation equipped to right this nontraditional enemy, we found ourselves confronting election politics and science denial. The administration ignored the lessons of past influenza and Ebola epidemics and the work of at least three previous administrations, resulting in a dis ointed and disastrous response.
Without cohesive national leadership, governors, local public health authorities, and longtime federal civil servants from a variety of agencies, including the National Institutes of Health NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention CDC, had to step in to stem the chaos and piece together rational strategies. In a normal battle, that would be like asking the majors and sergeants to plan the campaign strategy while engaged in a tactical re right on the ground.
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