Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

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Mar 13: President Trump declares coronavirus a national emergency. He also states: “I don’t take responsibility at all,” in response to a question about the lack of available tests. President Trump falsely announces the development of a new website: “Google is going to develop a website … to determine if a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location. Google has 1,700 engineers working on this right now. They have made tremendous progress.” Google Communications corrects the president’s statement later that day. Federal agencies begin placing bulk orders on N95 masks, ventilators, and other medical equipment. Based on a review of federal purchasing contracts by the Associated Press, the Trump administration only starts to place bulk orders on necessary medical equipment in mid-March. Mount Everest and the Louvre are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Boston Marathon is postponed. COVID-19 has spread into 114 countries and at least 4,000 people are dead. Democrats and Republicans work to pass a new financial aid package to address the crisis. Disneyworld closes.

Breonna Taylor is shot and killed by police in Louisville.*

From the Cutting Room Floor...

It is Friday the thirteenth. Feels appropriate. There is a mask shortage all over the country. No one can find toilet paper to save their lives. There’s no treatment or vaccine (though none was expected this early on). All the touting of America’s superior preparedness back in February looks to be hollow bluster. I am pretty sure that my local hospital does not have a way to test for the virus. We can’t even properly screen the people flying in from countries covered by the various travel bans.[1]

Debate rages over who handled their pandemic worse: Trump in 2020 or Obama in 2009 (against the H1N1 influenza outbreak). He
brings up Obama in tweets and on the Sean Hannity show to make two points: first that “Obama didn’t handle the H1N1 pandemic well either,” and second that “When Obama was in office, he failed to create an infrastructure that would allow for an agile response to this new pandemic.” Obama’s vaccination program hit some serious snags, admittedly, but they were much faster than Trump in providing funding to vaccine research. One could argue that Trump should not be comparing himself to Obama. The scale of response that the coronavirus demands of Trump is levels of degree higher than what we experienced in 2009 with H1N1. With H1N1, .02% of the people who had the virus, died. With the coronavirus, 2% of the people who have the virus are dying. Remember that the Spanish flu had a lethality rate of 3%, and 50 million people died in 1918-1919. He needs to be responding in a way that far exceeds anything that Obama ever did because this new virus is so much worse.

The real problem seems to be in the other realm of leadership that is related to showing humility, empathy, and an ability to unify your team. 

Trump can’t bring himself admit that we have been caught off guard. Imagine how powerful his message would be if he compared this virus to the attacks on 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, or to the lesser known sinking of the USS Maine in 1898 that started the Spanish-American War. Get in front of the nation with an American flag waving behind you. Tell everyone that this is a moment of crisis, that we all must come together, and then give clear instructions on what each American needs to do to fulfil their patriotic obligations to the nation. Call upon the American population to rally against this terrifying foe like George W. Bush and FDR did. Create a consensus across the aisle that will allow for mass mobilization. Stop saying that there is nothing to worry about. Obama is not the one who downplayed the seriousness of the virus, Trump did. And I get it; no one wants to scare the investors. But even in the world of business, there are examples of leaders who have had to be humble and transparent in order to survive. GE, Apple, and JP Morgan have all had CEO’s who admitted that they had missed an opportunity, were redoubling their efforts to fix the problem, and in the long run saw high stock returns.

If we’re going to point fingers, they should also be directed at Congress, the CDC, HHS, and the government bureaucracy that is supposed to handle long term planning as presidents come and go. Like Dr. Osterholm pointed out in his interview with Joe Rogan, after the H1N1 flu faded a decade ago, no one spearheaded the infrastructure needed for the mass production of masks and ventilators or the planning for what would need to happen if a pandemic hit. It’s like living in Miami without a hurricane evacuation plan. Everyone knew that this pandemic was coming sooner or later, or, at least, the people in power did.

The big question is, why? Why are we being caught with our pants down right now? Maybe part of the answer has to do with the kind of bureaucracy that is now running the country. There has been an 85% turnover rate among upper-level Trump administration officials since 2017.[2] In the first 32 months of Trump’s time in office, he exceeded the rate of turnover of all of his predecessors. On top of this, his cabinet is almost completely staffed with “acting” officials who he has personally chosen with no confirmation from the Senate. The implications of these two phenomena are serious and myriad. First, this means that there is very little long-term institutional memory at the heights of power. We may all be suspicious of the “deep state,” but lifetime bureaucrats are the ones who remember the last crisis and push for long term, prophylactic planning. Second, this has created an environment where those who are in power are there at the whim of the president. In so many ways, Trump’s moves to consolidate power remind me of how Stalin cemented his regime in the late 1920s. Only candidates who professed support for Stalin could take positions as local secretaries. Those secretaries in turn elected delegates to the national congress, who then chose the people who would sit at the heights power in the Central Committee. And of course, the Central Committee voted to keep Stalin as their head. Russian historians call it the “circular flow of power.” What this meant was that everyone owed their job to Stalin and he could fire whoever he liked. No one spoke up when Stalin took away civil rights or authorized extraordinary policing of the Soviet people. If you stuck your head out, it got cut off. And we see this happening here, today. Who in Trump’s cabinet is going to tell him that he is wrong? Who in the intelligence community is going to throw a fit when Trump ignores their reports in January that a pandemic is coming?[3]

Maybe another part of the answer lies in the old saying that “generals always prepare for the last war.” In the 1920s, after the First World War ended, the beleaguered French famously built the impregnable Maginot Line of fortresses through the Ardennes Forest to make sure that the Germans could never again invade again through a direct assault. They were preparing for the last war, not the one that was coming. They failed to predict the Blitzkrieg that swept across their defenses in a matter of weeks. Even when generals know that war is coming, the cost and effort required to prepare for an unknown, perhaps even unimagined catastrophe that may not even happen at all, seems so very high.

On this Friday the thirteenth, the US feels a little bit like eastern France in 1939. The CDC and the WHO were criticized back in 2003 for overreacting to SARS. Maybe they were gun shy. Clearly, we all underestimated this thing. Now we can see the enemy on the border. Our defenses seem porous at best. We have only “what-ifs” and “if-onlies” to mull over. What if we had shut down sooner? If only Trump had turned this over to professionals sooner and been more open to advice…. Will a thousand die from this? How many more mothers and sons and sisters and lovers would be alive, if only we had …?



[1] Zolan Kanno-Youngs, “Travelers From Coronavirus Hot Spots Say They Faced No Screening,” The New York Times, March 13, 2020, sec. U.S.,

[2] Ph.D, Kathryn Dunn Tenpas and. “And Then There Were Ten: With 85% Turnover across President Trump’s A Team, Who Remains?” Brookings (blog), March 13, 2020.

[3] Dilanian, Ken. “How U.S. Spies Predict Pandemics like Coronavirus.” NBC News, March 13, 2020. 

Read more
PBS NewsHour. WATCH: World Health Organization Briefing on the Novel Coronavirus – March 13, 2020, 2020.
Gary Brink. Disneyland Closure: Last Fantasmic Finale 2020 – March 13 2020, 2020.
World Health Organization (WHO). Coronavirus – Seven Steps to Prevent the Spread of the Virus, 2020.

NPR News Roundup, March 13, 2020,


*If the pdf thumbnails are not appearing, please reload the page.

Ph.D, Kathryn Dunn Tenpas and. “And Then There Were Ten: With 85% Turnover across President Trump’s A Team, Who Remains?” Brookings (blog), March 13, 2020.
Gautret, Philippe, and et al. “Hydroxychloroquine and Azithromycin as a Treatment of COVID-19.Pdf.” Google Docs, March 13, 2020.
Todaro, MD, James, and Gregory Rigano, Esq. “An Effective Treatment for Coronavirus (COVID-19),” March 13, 2020.
Guo, Yan-Rong, Qing-Dong Cao, Zhong-Si Hong, Yuan-Yang Tan, Shou-Deng Chen, Hong-Jun Jin, Kai-Sen Tan, De-Yun Wang, and Yan Yan. “The Origin, Transmission and Clinical Therapies on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Outbreak – an Update on the Status.” Military Medical Research 7, no. 1 (March 13, 2020): 11.
Thompson, Lindsay A., and Sonja A. Rasmussen. “What Does the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Mean for Families?” JAMA Pediatrics 174, no. 6 (March 13, 2020): 628.
Green, Manfred S. “Did the Hesitancy in Declaring COVID-19 a Pandemic Reflect a Need to Redefine the Term?” The Lancet 395, no. 10229 (March 13, 2020): 1034–35.
Wilder-Smith, A, and D O Freedman. “Isolation, Quarantine, Social Distancing and Community Containment: Pivotal Role for Old-Style Public Health Measures in the Novel Coronavirus (2019-NCoV) Outbreak.” Journal of Travel Medicine 27, no. 2 (March 13, 2020): taaa020.
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* Timeline summaries at the top of the page come from a variety of sources:, including The American Journal of Managed Care COVID-19 Timeline (, the Just Security Group at the NYU School of Law (, the “10 Things,” daily entries from The Week (, as well as a variety of newspapers and television programs.