What Might a Competent Federal Pandemic Response Look Like?

Quality examples abound if we are willing to learn from them

Tyson Victor Weems
4 min readOct 23, 2020

Defenders of the POTUS are currently arguing that Clinton or Biden would have done no better at preventing COVID-19 transmission and related deaths. It’s tough to know for sure without a time machine or alternative universe. Accepting the argument means believing Clinton or Biden would have done as poorly on a variety of fronts (or would have made serious errors elsewhere). A better question might be what can we learn from our recent and continuing pandemic response failures? There ARE numerous examples of better ones. Here are 10:

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It’s crucial to consider WHY we’ve performed so poorly in all of these instances. Resignation is the stuff of losers or quitters. Some possible explanations for our relative struggles:

The President’s personality and approach:

  • Fixation on his own perceived short-term political interests
  • Trying to look good or strong to feed his ego
  • Lack of interest in taking responsibility or managing during a crisis
  • Disdain for international cooperation (a.k.a. “globalism”)
  • Lack of compassion for others, especially those not in “red states”
  • Preference for conspiracy thinking over science and lack of basic comprehension of data (e.g., thinking 85% of mask-wearers get sick)
  • Distrust or disdain for the public (e.g., purposefully downplaying the virus’s severity to avoid causing “panic”)
  • Attraction to silver bullets and quick (or quack) fixes

Weaknesses in modern conservative approaches:

  • Commitment to privatization and corporate tax breaks versus funding public health or other programs
  • Incentives to show governmental incompetence to shrink its role
  • Wishful thinking/denial of tough realities to protect short-term profits
  • Over-playing terrorist threats at the cost of addressing greater ones like climate disruption and pandemics
  • Perceived lack of public accountability, even for repeated errors or lies
  • Inability to stand up to the President and for more effective policies
  • Neglect of scientific expertise (e.g., about tobacco, pollution, climate)

The state of the country

  • Lack of trust in governmental officials or interventions
  • Arrogance about having to do things “our way” rather than learning from other nations, especially “shithole countries” and other lessers
  • Tendency to filter everything through a partisan lens and take sides (e.g., on face masks and other basic precautions)
  • Limited acknowledgment of interconnectedness with people around us
  • Prioritizing freedom to pretend things are normal over freedom from sickness or death
  • Numerous workers still needing to work at high-risk jobs to pay bills
  • Certain for-profit media outlets spreading misinformation or sensationalizing coverage for clicks or views

Deeper systemic weaknesses

  • Long-term insufficient spending on public health compared to fighting wars (e.g, on drugs and terror)
  • Supply chain outsourcing for PPE and other basic medical supplies
  • Lack of universal health care and paid sick leave
  • Prisoners and other vulnerable groups living in close quarters
  • Lack of safe working conditions in agriculture and other industries
  • Lack of funding to support school and daycare facility efforts to increase on-site safety

Nature of the virus

  • Not having cures, vaccines, or an understanding of best medical practices (initially) due to its novelty
  • Having initial data of questionable quality due to poor reporting by China

It seems unreasonable to expect the United States’ pandemic statistics to rival those of South Korea or Norway. Despite our scientific innovation and wealth, SARS-COV-2 has exposed some serious structural deficiencies. Those include for public health infrastructure and spending as well as low public faith in governmental competence and belief by many in its roles being limited.

Likewise, no serious people are arguing that our tragic response performance is all one guy’s fault. But all but the most devastatingly incompetent and incapable leaders could have performed better in multiple areas. Job requirements for the supposed “leader of the free world” include:

  • Basic scientific literacy and information skills
  • An interest in other people and in inspiring them to work together to overcome adversity
  • Willingness to talk to other leaders about programs and policies that appear to be making the world a better place (along with those that aren’t)

Clinton and Biden both meet these basic standards. Leaders like New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern and Angela Merkel of Germany are exceeding them. But even coming up well short of their performance would be a significant improvement on what we continue to experience.

Angela Merkel (left) and Jacinda Ardern (right) (Wikipedia Commons)

Some may characterize critiques like this as Monday morning quarterbacking. I’d argue we’re more like halfway through the season and have yet to make necessary adjustments to end a winless streak. Until we do we will continue to lose thousands of lives and cede our international influence to superpowers who’ve more effectively reduced cases and deaths, especially China.

When leaders so clearly in over their heads are unwilling to learn from mistakes or seek help to improve, we must remove them from leadership positions. This administration has largely abandoned its post. Vaccine distribution will require much higher quality communication and management than demonstrated to date. It seems insane to expect better from the same cast of characters and thus both necessary and patriotic to replace it.



Tyson Victor Weems

Non-profit founder, musician, coach, X-C skier/CrossFitter, artist, concerned citizen, mammal (not necessarily in that order). See https://weems.works for more.