It’s not just that Donald Trump and company actively took apart the team that was designed to provide a national response to pandemics. Even within the agencies and systems that remained, disaster response of all kinds—and pandemic response in particular—was devalued, ignored, and allowed to simply disappear.
Trump may have ended military exercises with South Korea as a sop to North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un, but there appears to be no reason at all why the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stopped planning for pandemics. For more than a decade, DHS held an annual simulation of how a pandemic would affect America, looking for critical holes in the nation’s infrastructure and making proposals to shore up weaknesses in both health care and transportation. But as soon as Trump took office, this planning simply … stopped.
During the transition period, Trump officials went through a series of exercises designed to help them understand the vulnerabilities of the nation and the power of the White House to respond. Among these was a simulated pandemic involving a theoretical strain of flu that emerged in Asia and began to spread rapidly around the world with the warning that it could be as deadly as the 1918 pandemic. Before they ever took over the White House, the Trump team was warned that in such an emergency they could face challenges such as “shortages of ventilators, anti-viral drugs, and other medical essentials” and that a “coordinated, unified national response was ‘paramount’” in saving lives and holding the nation together.
Just last fall, the Department of Health and Human Services staged a simulated pandemic as “Operation Crimson Contagion,” which again modeled a virus that caused fever and respiratory illness emerging from China to sweep around the world. The report on that exercise was clear in its results: The Trump White House was woefully unprepared in its response. The White House failed to give the states enough funding to respond, didn’t provide clear access to federal resources, didn’t set up any clear leadership, failed to issue national guidelines for how states should respond, and didn’t have anything set up for how agencies could do their work remotely.
In short, that exercise seemed to predict everything that would go wrong in real life starting just two months later.
Now it turns out that Trump’s team had a third opportunity to work at this problem—but they stood aside and didn’t even take a swing. As Politico reports, from 2005 to 2017, the Department of Homeland Security modeled the effect that a pandemic would have on critical infrastructure across the nation. That complex simulation looked for issues with the transportation and distribution network as well as what it would mean if a large portion of America’s workforce had to stay home and could not maintain systems that depend on a human presence.
Now that information is needed, and not only did the Trump team simply stop updating the information when they took office—they didn’t even bother to preserve what had already been done. Agencies that are now scrambling for the results generated before Trump allowed the system to wither are finding the information “scattered,” when it can be found at all.
This information, carefully produced over a dozen years using supercomputers and the cooperation of teams at several national laboratories, was meant expressly to provide guidance in exactly this situation. Now agencies are looking for it and finding that what is even available is sadly out of date.
This data was designed not just to help in predicting things like the need for ventilators and masks in hospitals across the nation, but to predict the next need, and the one after that. It’s meant to show where the nation is fragile and needs shoring up in a situation that is far from normal. That tool was allowed to simply … die.
And why did that happen? According to a former DHS official, there’s a simple answer: Under Trump, the DHS has become “singularly focused on border enforcement” at the expense of everything else.