How Obama Would Have Handled the Covid-19 Pandemic

A little bit of research leads you to a tale of two presidents

President Barack Obama and then President Elect Donald Trump at the inauguration on January 20, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

When Covid-19 was first discovered last winter, no one could have predicted the extent of its vicious impact. But after more than 2.3 million cases and 120,000 deaths, it’s clear that leadership failed Americans in coordinating an appropriate response.

Like millions of people, I wondered if the nation had been dealt a bad hand due to the faulty individuals in power. But instead of just thinking about the probable outcome, I decided to examine it.

While most of the nation remained in quarantine, I wrote an ebook to explore how things might have changed under different leadership, How President Barack Obama Would Have Handled Covid-19.

For eight years, I covered the Obama administration as a reporter and was present during a multitude of speeches, press briefings, and events at the White House and on the campaign trail. Along with recalling my firsthand coverage of the Obama administration, I researched notes, videos, speech transcripts, and pool reports where Obama addressed and took action against the Ebola and H1N1 pandemics. I also took a look at President Donald Trump’s response to Covid-19 and the immediate effects of his actions. The research eventually led to the ebook becoming a tale of two presidents.

In 2016, as Obama’s second term drew to a close, the administration’s National Security Council created a 69-page manual to help future leaders fight pandemics. The plan, called “Playbook for Early Response to High-Consequence Emerging Infectious Disease Threats and Biological Incidents,” outlined the U.S. government’s proper response to pandemics, including the duties of each agency. (The manual itself can be found here.)

The manual would have served as a critical guide for Trump’s administration in the early days of the pandemic. Trump was briefed on the manual during his first days in the White House. However, he reportedly disregarded the manual and never adopted it as strategy. Officials from his administration claimed that the manual was “outdated,” and that they had a more detailed plan.

How it might have gone

Looking back, the playbook appears to be a strategy that would have undoubtedly saved lives and helped the public during a pandemic. It outlines reactions to an Elevated Threat, a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), and a Credible Threat. It also lists pathogens and viruses that could be a threat, including strains of the coronavirus (SARS and MERS, both of which emerged in the 21st century, were also coronaviruses).

In early January, once the World Health Organization announced the cluster of Covid-19 cases that emerged in Wuhan, China, the playbook would have called for government leaders to ask key questions about the characteristics of the virus, the number of cases, and tracing and testing capabilities. Other questions would have included how the virus was transmitted, and success rates in terms of treatment.

Trump could have rebranded himself as a true leader, one who stepped up and acted prudently during a crisis. Instead, he did more than fold under pressure; he completely unraveled.

Similarly, it would have called for the nation’s leaders to lead with a uniform plan of action. It also required the U.S. government to supply medical workers with proper equipment ahead of a potential global pandemic. If states did not have sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers providing medical care, the Strategic National Stockpile would release PPE to states.

That’s how it should have gone, at least. Trump could have rebranded himself as a true leader, one who stepped up and acted prudently during a crisis. Instead, he did more than fold under pressure: he completely unraveled. The Trump administration acted against the advice of prominent scientists and spread misinformation to Americans regarding the severity of the virus. And in the end, the American people would suffer significantly; even now, cases continue to spike in states that relaxed restrictions quickly and didn’t require the use of face coverings upon reopening.

President Obama did not always get it right during his time in office. But even on his worst days, he set a standard that Trump failed to live up to. In eight years at the White House, Obama set an example of what it means to have a true leader in the world’s most important position.

The overall impact of the Covid-19 pandemic may not be determined until months or years down the road. There is hope on the horizon; according to recent testimony by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a vaccine may become available late this year or early the next. But that doesn’t negate the current devastation, or the lessons to be learned from it.

The most critical job position in the land should never go to a person who lacks a basic grasp of its duties, or the willingness to fulfill those duties. The future of the nation will depend on leaders who can lead in a rational manner that will benefit every person in America.

Covid-19 should serve as a wake-up call. We will suffer from poor leadership decisions in the time being, but it does not always have to be this way. We should look to the future to eliminate separatism, racial disparities, hate, and a lack of common sense.

In other words, we must learn from the mistakes that led to the Covid-19 debacle — or find ourselves repeating an outcome that never had to happen in the first place.

Author/journalist who documents culture, politics, and music. From the Obama White House to Atlanta’s Trap music scene, Shaw’s media experience is extensive.

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