After every disaster, we search for the bad decisions and missed warnings that allowed it to happen. We remember how Captain E. J. Smith of the Titanic disregarded telegram alerts about icebergs ahead, or that NASA leaders chose to launch the space shuttle Challenger despite warnings that the craft’s booster rockets might malfunction.
Most major disasters arouse some sense of outrage, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. Looking back on how the crisis unfolded, we find mistakes not just regrettable but stunning, unforgivable — some would say even criminal. The decisions that enable disaster strike us as worse than incompetence — made by people who must have known they were risking the lives of others. …
The entire political, ruling class failed in the West — media, bureaucrats, academics, and politicans of both sides:
Today, many Americans want to identify the people who allowed the pandemic to spread so rampantly. President Trump usually tops that list. Though his administration took some steps to prepare for the virus beginning in early January, the president himself generally downplayed the potential crisis. (“We have it totally under control,” he said on Jan. 22.) Trump did make a decisive — and widely criticized — call to limit travel from China on Jan. 31. But his administration then squandered precious weeks, taking too long to force CDC and FDA administrators to cut red tape on testing and protective gear.
Trump’s defenders point to a long list of failings by Democrats, led by New York governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor de Blasio. Like Trump, both leaders were slow to face reality and too eager to reassure constituents. “We can really keep this thing contained,” the mayor insisted on Feb. 26. “We’ve been ahead of this since Day 1,” Cuomo agreed a few days later. “Excuse our arrogance as New Yorkers,” the governor continued, “We think we have the best health-care system on the planet right here in New York.” That wishful thinking slowed down New York’s response: As late as March 14, de Blasio still refused to close schools or shutter bars and restaurants. Cuomo waited until March 20 to issue a blanket shutdown — days after other regions, with far fewer cases, had begun closing schools and issuing stay-at-home orders. Within weeks, the New York metro area would lead the world in COVID-19 cases per capita.
Other Democrats gave similar false assurances. In late February, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi urged tourists to visit San Francisco’s Chinatown, saying, “Everything is fine here.” Only one of the party’s aspiring presidential candidates even mentioned the virus in the Democratic primary debates before late February. On the plus side, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer began calling for emergency pandemic funding as early as Jan. 26.
The point of this exercise isn’t to tally up which party did better or worse in its response to the pandemic. Both largely failed; failure to anticipate the worst is a bipartisan trait. …
So did any country get it right? Yes. Taiwan.
“I don’t think any country has a perfect record,” Bill Gates said in a recent interview. “Taiwan comes close.”
Indeed, despite its location just 80 miles off the China coast, Taiwan has had only six deaths from the disease to date. How did they do it? Taiwan seems to have followed the model recommended by disaster expert Vaughan: It doesn’t expect infallibility from its leaders. Instead, Taiwan makes sure that its health institutions are hyper-vigilant about epidemic risks. After the SARS epidemic of 2003, Taiwan set up an interlocking set of agencies geared toward the early detection of pandemics and bioterrorism.
Vaughan and other researchers note that complacency is usually fed by groupthink. At a time when China and the World Health Organization were downplaying the coronavirus threat, it was easy for world leaders to believe that everything was under control. …
In January, while other countries were trusting the WHO’s bland assurances, Taiwan was already turning away cruise ships and performing health checks at airports. Taking early action against COVID-19 meant defying a consensus shared by much of the world. … The results speak for themselves.