Former ’Ebola Czar’ Discusses Administration’s COVID-19 Response
WASHINGTON – Ron Klain, U.S. Ebola response coordinator from 2014 to 2015, recently spoke to diplomats convened virtually by the Meridian International Center to share his lessons learned about pandemic management from the ongoing Ebola crisis.
Klain, informally dubbed the ‘Ebola czar’ in early 2014, managed the response to one of the United States’ most recent health crises before the novel coronavirus. He spoke of “not the mistakes that were made and fixed, but the mistakes that continue [to be made]” in the COVID-19 crisis, calling out specifically the lack of tracking, tracing, testing, and personal protective equipment due to what he considers the Trump Administration’s failed coronavirus response. “It’s a horrible dereliction of duty from national leadership,” he said.
It’s natural to draw contrasts between the U.S. experience with its Ebola response and COVID-19, yet Klain acknowledged the situation is not the same. With Ebola, he said the U.S. assumed global leadership, and he coordinated government activities surrounding the first-ever U.S. deployment of troops to fight an epidemic in West Africa.
Despite the situational differences, Klain said any approach to a pandemic, as well as future cooperation on global health and national security, should be the same. He called for coordinated leadership with clear lines of authority and accountability and for scientific and medical experts to be at the forefront. And most importantly, he said, “You have to go all in.”
“With a pandemic, you over-respond or you under respond. There’s no getting it exactly right,” he said. And as he did with Ebola, Klain pushed for the over response. “Use every tool that you have, even those which won’t end up being needed.”
Preemptively responding to critics who may say such a heightened response was unnecessary because death tolls do not appear as dire as projected, Klain said, “Let me be clear, the [early] forecasts of death [the Administration cited] were if we did nothing. Saying it wasn’t as bad as it could have been if we did nothing is not a success.”
Offering praise to Secretary Azar’s preliminary actions, including attempts to call attention to COVID-19’s early escalation, Klain found fault with the remainder of the administration’s coronavirus response. Not only has the U.S. been anticipating a pandemic for years, he said, but in January 2020 the country had ample notice of the actual threat and wasted its opportunity to build up testing, isolate people, track chains of transmission, secure protective equipment and medical gear, and fortify hospitals. “[The administration] spent January and February doing none of those things,” he said. According to the former Ebola czar, President Trump also neglected to make appropriate use of the Defense Production Act.
Klain didn’t exonerate the World Health Organization for its role in the pandemic response either. “[WHO] should have declared a pandemic sooner,” he said. And then there’s its failure to get to the bottom of what happened in China.” WHO’s response should have been faster, clearer, and more accurate, said Klain, “but on the other hand, accountability is on us for our reaction to the information we were given… and cutting off all support is a mistake. It’s not going to achieve WHO reform.”
Based on his experience, Klain predicted that the consequences of the U.S. response to COVID-19 and attempts at reopening the economy will see “thousands and thousands” of deaths in May and lead to a “second wave in August or September” that will be erratic and uneven, spiking in some places. “[Trump] hardly has a reason to raise the Mission Accomplished banner,” he said.
As the nation moves forward, Klain is most concerned that Trump’s policy to stand aside and leave states to manage their own responses has resulted “in a series of regional state alliances that look like a map of the U.S. in 1786.” He is worried that the virus has the nation withdrawing and breaking down into regional confederations.
Withdrawal of federal responsibility is a trend Klain said may signal the end of American exceptionalism — and possibly even the waning of U.S. leadership in global health and security. And if the U.S. isn’t going to be at the forefront of cooperation on worldwide health concerns, he echoed German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in 2015, calling for the creation of a global response organization to fight future pandemics with a combined mission of security and medical response. Speaking from experience, Klain warned, “No country can be safe unless this pandemic is extinguished everywhere.”
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