The Harsh Truths Coronavirus Has Exposed

Excerpt 4 of 5, adapted to stand alone, from a May 26, 2020 SPECIAL REPORT on coronavirus

By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981)

Every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state.

—George Packer, “We Are Living in a Failed State/Underlying Conditions,” The Atlantic, June 2020 issue preview

“COVID, in a lot of ways, is a great equalizer.” Coco Tang is one of many working the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic in New York City, pictured here in Times Square in late April (Photo: Coco Tang).

I met fellow American Coco Tang years ago in Amman, Jordan, while she was on a Fulbright.  When not working as a consultant, she moonlights as a medic in some of the world’s worst hotspots.  Her postings have found her supporting as a medic both Iraqi Special Forces during the battle of Mosul against ISIS and OSCE patrols in Eastern Ukraine, working in refugee camps in Syria and Bangladesh, working in a clinic in Afghanistan, treating vulnerable women in the South Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, assessing local health in Ethiopia, and working in Sierra Leone as part of the Ebola response there.  She goes to some of the most dangerous places in the world to offer medical support, often in extreme humanitarian and medical emergencies.

And now she finds herself offering medical support in New York City during a pandemic, deployed by a medical company to the front lines in the war against COVID-19 here at home.

“When I worked in Iraq or Syria, there was an expectation of austerity. When you work in NYC, the austerity feels surreal.  Experiencing it in a place like NYC reminds me that COVID, in a lot of ways, is a great equalizer.”

That is what makes bioweapons as a weapon of war or terrorism so terrifying to powerful countries like America: it reduces the conventional operational planes in a way that is so unconventional and asymmetric that its extreme asymmetry rips the powerful far from their accustomed, advantaged positions.  

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz just recently remarked that the U.S. coronavirus response makes it look like “like a third-world country.”  Tang has experienced a similar feeling in New York: “People expect pandemics to be a third-world problem. People expect problems like PPE [personal protective equipment] shortages to be a third-world problem.”  And, yet, here she was, grappling with serious equipment shortages during a pandemic here the U.S., and not in Appalachia, but in New York City, in Manhattan.  “COVID exposes that we aren’t any better than those countries we always look down on.  That at the end of the day, America is just a homeless person wearing fancy clothes.”

Tang was not even being asked about bioweapons when she made that statement, but she still nailed one of the central issues in biowarfare and unconventional warfare and how COVID-19 relates to it.  As I have mentioned elsewhere, Max Boot wrote that “all guerrilla and terrorist tactics…are designed to negate the firepower advantage of conventional forces.”  Bioweapons just do this on a deeper, more frightening scale, and coronavirus is showing us that natural pandemics can have the same effect.  In many ways, our current pandemic is a preview of a major bioweapons attack, and it has exposed us as woefully unprepared, with our government having been shown to be unable to protect us, thought of by many to be the primary role of government.  It could have, but it did notAmericans’ faith in institutions has already been crumbling for some time, and now that level of faith will be even lower.

Feeling the need to explain why she was writing her article in March for The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum made her case in stark terms that reflected Tang’s imagery:

I am writing this so that Americans understand that our government is producing some of the same outcomes as Chinese communism.  This means that our political system is in far, far worse shape than we have hitherto understood.

…The United States, long accustomed to thinking of itself as the best, most efficient, and most technologically advanced society in the world, is about to be proved an unclothed emperor.

George Packer also wrote for The Atlantic, echoing Tang, Applebaum, and Stiglitz in a pieced titled “We Are Living in a Failed State” with the lead “The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken.”  Packer does not hold back as he opens his article’s body:

When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly.  Chronic ills—a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public—had gone untreated for years.  We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms.  It took the scale and intimacy of a pandemic to expose their severity—to shock Americans with the recognition that we are in the high-risk category.

The crisis demanded a response that was swift, rational, and collective.  The United States reacted instead like Pakistan or Belarus—like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering.

…With no national plan—no coherent instructions at all—families, schools, and offices were left to decide on their own whether to shut down and take shelter.

Explaining how we got to this state, Packer writes that “all the programs defunded, stockpiles depleted, and plans scrapped meant that we had become a second-rate nation. Then came the virus and this strange defeat.”  Not only are we losing this war, this war is forcing us to see our national ugliness by relentlessly shining a spotlight onto it and forcing us to look nonstop.  Packer, again, puts it eloquently: “If the pandemic really is a kind of war, it’s the first to be fought on this soil in a century and a half.  Invasion and occupation expose a society’s fault lines, exaggerating what goes unnoticed or accepted in peacetime, clarifying essential truths, raising the smell of buried rot.”

In periods of pestilence, there is a tendency for those fault lines to be racial, ethnic, and religious, with those types of hatreds being only too eagerly released and minority groups being blamed for the outbreaks.

Just to name one foreign example for today, in Hindu chauvinist Narendra Modi’s India, anti-Islamic bigotry is becoming mixed up in the country’s response to coronavirus.

If we go back in time, ignorant and/or covetous Christians in fourteenth-century Europe blamed Jews for the Black Death and massacred many thousands of them across the continent, destroying whole communities and ethnically cleansing Jews from entire regions (just in Mainz alone, over 6,000 Jews perished from a plague-inspired pogrom in 1349).  If we fast-forward to today, Jews are also being blamed in very anti-Semitic fashion by a range of extremists around the world (including in America) for unleashing coronavirus as some sort of organized plot, bringing down “God’s” vengeance in the form of the virus, or of profiting off the pandemic (or a combination of these); billionaire Jewish philanthropist George Soros is even frequently accused of creating the virus.

In the U.S., Asian-Americans and Asians are also being attackedincluding physically—and blamed for the virus “because” of the virus’s Chinese origin, with anti-Asian hate crimes very much on the rise, yet the federal government is not being proactive in pushing back against this hate, with problematic language coming from the White House itself only adding fuel to the fire.

There is also the persistent racism and pervasive inequality that long-plagued American society, with socioeconomic status, harsher living and working conditions, and unequal access to quality healthcare experienced disproportionately by certain groups of people contributing to their having chronic health issues that make the virus more serious and more deadly for them than for members of more advantaged communities.  Inequality also makes it far harder for some disadvantaged groups to take appropriate actions to protect themselves; in the words of Charles Blow writing for The New York Times, “Staying at home is a privilege.  Social distancing is a privilege.  The people who can’t must make terrible choices: Stay home and risk starvation or go to work and risk contagion.”  Problems of race, ethnicity, and class are only made worse by coronavirus.

In particular, the inequalities that have long been inflicted upon African-Americans have been resulting in incredibly disproportionately high deaths and serious infections from COVID-19 for African-Americans.  Just in Chicago, by the end of the first week of April, African-Americans had accounted for seventy percent of COVID-19 deaths even though they just made up thirty percent of the population.  And Chicago is hardly alone, with major disparities for black Americans in terms of coronavirus being the norm across the country.

Other groups in America are also suffering disproportionately from this pandemic.  Long-neglected Native Americans are also particularly vulnerable and experiencing extremely high rates of coronavirus problems.  Latinos are also quite disproportionately affected by COVID-19.  And lower-income people of all backgrounds have relatively borne the brunt of not only the virus itself, but also the massive economic harm inflicted by the pandemic.

As Max Brooks noted in a mid-March interview, “All of these terrible, terrible trends that we’ve been sowing for so long are coming back to haunt us right at this minute.”

Our unending, longstanding American divisions—politically partisan and otherwise—are only intensified by this unconventional, asymmetric pandemic, much like the unconventional, asymmetric threats from the Vietnam and Iraq Wars and Russian election interference aggravated existing American societal fault lines.  The virus, rather than showing our ability to unite, is instead exposing—even more than recent politics—our capacity for coming apart.  For Packer,

the virus should have united Americans against a common threat. With different leadership, it might have. Instead, even as it spread from blue to red areas, attitudes broke down along familiar partisan lines.  The virus also should have been a great leveler. You don’t have to be in the military or in debt to be a target—you just have to be human.  But from the start, its effects have been skewed by the inequality that we’ve tolerated for so long.

Then there is the black hole where our coordinated national response should have been.

The most extreme example of this has manifested itself in a disturbing, unprecedented, and stunning situation that just unfolded in Maryland, exemplifying a breakdown in the constitutional order and national fabric not seen since the era of desegregation.  This stunning incident hints at China’s twentieth-century warlord era, when the Qing Dynasty’s central government broke down and basically melted away in so many places to such levels that China de facto became a relatively large number of separate states run by warlords who had to step up and provide leadership in the void left by the Qing.  They also had to contend with the Chinese Nationalists and Chinese Communists as everyone fought each other, with the Japanese Imperial Army and WWII eventually merging into the conflicts; dysfunction and chaos reigned (and incidentally, remember, this situation would eventually see the most extensive use of bioweapons in the history of warfare).  To return to the American present, in the absence of timely or coherent support from the federal government, Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland and his wife, Maryland First Lady Yumi Hogan—of Korean descent—negotiated with South Korea to obtain 500,000 coronavirus tests.  The process took twenty-two days and the tests were flown over from South Korea, with the Korea Air passenger plane—which would normally have landed at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, just outside Washington, DC—being diverted to Baltimore-Washington International airport in Maryland, the first time that airline has ever flown to that the airport.  This was done purposefully to prevent the seizure of the tests by the federal government, which had earlier seized three million protective masks ordered by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker for his state, among other seizures from governors taking matters into their own hands because of the Trump Administration’s unwillingness to directly supply the states with necessary quantities of emergency supplies.  It is remarkable that states that had asked for federal aid, had their requests denied or unfulfilled, then followed the Administration’s advice to procure their own supplies then saw federal authorities seize those very supplies.  It is also worth noting that both Govs. Hogan and Baker are Republicans along with Trump, not to say that should make a difference but to point out how even fellow Republicans are unable to work with the current Administration.  Also out fear of the tests being seized at the airport, Hogan had “a large contingent” of Maryland National Guard troops and State Police sent to secure the tests and transport them to “an undisclosed location” that is purposely being kept secret from the federal government. Those tests are still being guarded by Maryland National Guard and State Police at that location to protect them from possible federal seizure, with Hogan saying the cargo “was like Fort Knox to us” since the tests were “going to save the lives of thousands of our citizens” and noting the earlier federal seizures of supplies ordered by other states.

In effect, Maryland’s sitting governor—in the same political party as the president—ran a clandestine operation to prevent life-saving equipment Maryland taxpayers had bought and paid for from falling into the clutches of the Trump Administration after that administration had failed to provide Maryland with requested aid and those coronavirus tests are still being guarded at a secret location by security forces under the command of the governor. 

In case this is not clear, that is a total breakdown of the relationship between Maryland and the federal government, with Maryland essentially rebelling against the Trump Administration’s potential designs and actual authority.  Gov. Hogan essentially became a de facto rogue governor—much like warlords in China after the Qing dynasty disintegrated and left a power vacuum of chaos in its wake—when it came to securing and protecting coronavirus tests for Marylanders.  One can only hope this is the first and last example of anything like this happening during the pandemic, but that hope is not carried with any certainty.

To add to Maryland’s woes, the state just canceled a $12.5 million order for other important emergency equipment—1.5 million protective masks and 110 ventilators—from a brand-new firm founded by two Republican political operatives.  The company was drastically overcharging for the masks and the items were supposed to ship by mid-April, but there is no indication they have shipped, and despite repeated requests from Maryland on the order status, no information on the shipping has been provided, prompting the cancellation at a time when Maryland is seeing a surge in cases and deaths.

Yes, right now, we are seeing states, the private sector, and the Executive Branch beg for, haggle, and tussle over urgently-needed PPE and other lifesaving supplies.  In other words, too much is being left to chance, the market, the whims of suppliers, and the relative means of various states even in the middle of a pandemic, with the private sector playing a mighty role, one that involves price and bidding wars.  The result of this top-down-driven logistical nightmare is that vital medical supplies and equipment are in short supply in too many places in America fighting this pandemic.  People, both patients and healthcare workers, are getting sick and dying after being in situations where they did not have what they should have had.

Even if the vaunted Defense Production Act—a Korean War-era law greatly empowering the government to direct industry in times of emergency—had been robustly and properly executed (and it still has not), a tremendous amount of the logistics would still have come down to an ad hoc approach.  And the ad hoc approach is only adding to the confusion and chaos.  As Gen. Russel Honoré (who helped lead America’s response in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina) explained about this current crisis, the main choices for logistics are between the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA, a civilian agency under the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS) and the military.  But, as he also explained, FEMA is designed to handle one or several localized emergencies at once, not a full-fledged national one; it simply does not have the capacity to run as the point organization for this pandemic.  At the same time, the military does not have any recent experience managing national operations across most or all U.S. states at once (or operating withing domestic local, state, and federal legal systems) and much of the military’s operations would have to be also handled in an ad hoc way, with dozens of senior officers having to liaise with dozens of governors and far more local officials to coordinate efforts in addition to private-sector entities; they would rely heavily on their civilian counterparts, most of whom would have little or no training or understanding of how to respond to such a situation or work with military officials; one hopes coronavirus will swiftly bring about a filling-in of these gaps in expertise).  Writing for the Modern War Institute at West Point (MWI), Mississippi National Guard Maj. Dennis Bittle notes that National Guard troops have been deployed as part of coronavirus responses in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and multiple U.S. territories, yet the existing frameworks for Guard deployments to be robust parts of these local responses are far from ideal in this unprecedented situation.  Specifically, federalizing Guard units would be highly problematic since so many Guard personnel are much-needed local first-responders in their civilian roles.

Without proper supplies allocated, distribution networks and equipment, and the personnel to run and move under the direction of the government, as noted, individual states are having to compete in bidding wars and fights over supplies with each other, businesses, the federal government, and even foreign countries just to get desperately needed life-saving supplies.  In what Gen. Honoré called a supply chain situation that he has “never heard…before in my life [that]… look[s] like they have let the literal wolf inside the henhouse,” states are being bypassed for direct aid by the federal government for corporations to then sell to states and, overall, there is little to no oversight, no singular body distributing supplies nationally based on objective needs-based criteria (by mid-April, Montana, with few cases, was getting over $300,000 in federal aid per case, while New York, the epicenter of coronavirus in America, was just getting $12,000 per case). 

There is even at least the appearance that federal disbursement and non-disbursement is happening as a form of political favoritism, as quid pro quos.  On top of all this, the federal government’s own stockpile was nearly empty as of early April apart from federally-confiscated supplies bought and paid for (and needed) by private hospitals and state and local authorities, activity we delved into earlier with the shocking case from Maryland.  Together these factors are just further amplifying senses of desperation, helplessness, and violation of trust. 

Adding to those panicked feelings are how the White House has handled communications: as U.S. Army Reserve Maj. Wonny Kim writes also for MWI, all this is further exacerbated “by public communications that has been haphazard, to say the least,” and in visible ways for all to see that undermine America’s standing in the world and encourage our authoritarian adversaries.  Our own officials have even concluded that Russian intelligence is even “likely” using the pandemic to gain information on U.S. logistical weaknesses.

Sadly, we have seen with the federal response and in other responses that political leaders are free to ignore or contradict the advice of medical and intelligence experts, and suppress or remove truth-tellers from important positions, thus, simply having expert advisors does not cut it; to some degree, both voting populations and politicians will have to take seriously the need for familiarity with pandemic response; voters should be choosing those with a demonstrated and committed deference both to experts and to self-learning and voters must then hold those leaders accountable; if they do not, they will be rewarding non-seriousness with high office, encouraging other politicians to follow suit.  These are, after all, the basics of democracy, and if voters do not reward competence, seriousness, and expertise, a great many of them will, to some degree, reap what they so after failing in their role as citizens.  In this time of pandemic, for Masha Gessen, “it’s very important to continue to notice the ways in which our government is failing us, even if those ways have become familiar and exhausting.”  The hope is that this pandemic will teach voters to take their votes more seriously, as George Packer recognizes: “We can learn from these dreadful days that stupidity and injustice are lethal; that, in a democracy, being a citizen is essential work; that the alternative to solidarity is death. After we’ve come out of hiding and taken off our masks, we should not forget what it was like to be alone.”

Brooks agrees that, ultimately, we as citizens in a democracy are the ones who are responsible:

Everything that goes wrong in China with this virus is directly laid at the feet of Xi Jinping.  He has all the power, so he has all the responsibility.  Every death is on his hands.

But, by the same token, we are responsible for our own deaths in this country.  If we don’t like our leaders—well, then, look in the mirror; we put them there. We voted for them.  If we don’t like the way the CDC is handling this virus, well, who voted to defund the CDC?  Who didn’t listen to the cries of health professionals saying, “Wait a minute, they’re defunding the CDC!”?  We didn’t listen.  We were like, “Oh, my god.  Friends is on Netflix.  I have bingeing to do!  I have things!  There’s an app where I can put bunny ears on myself and send it out!”

In a dictatorship like China, you can blame the top.  In a democracy, in a republic, we have to blame [who we see in] the mirror.

But the main national election is still a while away as the pandemic rages.  Given the systemic failures, just allowing the military to take over the response is tempting—whether now or in the future—and while that carries with it its own issues, it is clear the current civilian structures do not have the capacity to handle this type of threat, except maybe if our leaders are extraordinary, and most of the time, that is not the quality of leadership we empower.

At the same time, coronavirus is exposing the military’s own shortcomings within itself, with Army Reserve Capt. James Long noting in another MWI piece that “our lack of preparation, in the form of adaptive digital networks and robust connective tissue with civilian partners,” is further adding to the damage being done by the virus.  And, while Dr. Jacob Stoil and Army Maj. Bethany Landeck noted in an additional MWI article that, in past major wars, large-scale epidemic response was an important part of U.S. military operations, that has not been the case for decades.  Thus, though the civilian apparatuses have in many ways failed in the current crisis, we cannot expect the current military to be a replacement.  This sentiment is echoed in yet another MWI piece penned by U.S. Air Force Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies Director Al Mauroni titled “The Military Is Not the Nation’s Emergency Room Doctor.” For him, the military should be ready to support civilian efforts in a pandemic, but not to take them over.

In another piece, I will release my proposal to reform the government to put us in a far better position to deal with biodefense: the creation of a Cabinet-level Department of Pandemic Preparedness and Response (DPPR).  But for now, I will simply leave you with a recognition of how woefully inadequate the current structure of the government is to deal with these type of threats and how dependent the it is on having exceptional leadership that is able to quickly make all the right decisions on an ad hoc basis, an overall unlikely outcome, but also with the warning that there are far deeper societal ills that coronavirus has exposed in America that no new government department or piece of legislation can fix.

© 2020 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome

See Brian’s full coronavirus coverage here and his latest eBook version of the full special report,Coronavirus the Revealer: How the Coronavirus Pandemic Exposes America As Unprepared for Biowarfare & Bioterrorism, Highlighting Traditional U.S. Weakness in Unconventional, Asymmetric Warfare, available in Amazon KindleBarnes & Noble Nook, and EPUB editions.

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