The coronavirus outbreak presents a test of the United States’ ability to respond to crisis as well as an example of why oversight and transparency in government matters. Conflicting statements from the Trump Administration and medical professionals — combined with a desultory response to the coronavirus — have led some to compare the administration’s struggles today to the George W. Bush administration’s failed response to Hurricane Katrina. If recent events are any indication, Inspectors General and the Government Accountability Office will have their hands full once this outbreak ends.
Whistleblowers and the importance of transparency
Whistleblowers play an important role in alerting the public to threats that the government wishes to keep secret. In China, Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist, tried to warn other doctors oncenumerous patients came down with an “illness resembling SARS.” In response, the Chinese government forced the doctor to “sign a letter that accused him of ‘making false comments’ that had ‘severely disturbed the social order.’” Dr. Li went back to work at Wuhan Central Hospital and contractedthe coronavirus from a patient coming to see him for an unrelated medical condition. He cautioned that, had there been more openness and transparency from the Chinese government, it would have better protected Chinese citizens. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Li passed away from complications from the virus at the age of thirty-four.
The Chinese experience might seem a world away from the everyday concerns of Americans, but hostility towards whistleblowers has reached an all-time high. Recently, USA Today compared the Chinese government’s treatment of Dr. Li to the Trump Administration’s treatment of the Ukraine whistleblower. State-sponsored retaliation against whistleblowers harms government integrity and undermines trust in public institutions. However, China is not the only country with whistleblowers who have attempted to alert the public to its government’s failed response to the coronavirus.
Closer to home, a whistleblower from Human Health Services (HHS), revealed that the CDC did not adequately prepare teams sent to assist Americans returning to the United States from Wuhan, China and the Diamond Princess cruise ship and the teams did not take appropriate precautions. For example, the teams did not use safety equipment when interacting with potentially infected individuals. The teams did not limit subsequent interactions with other Americans; they flew home on commercial airlines and visited various parts of the military base where they worked. In many respects, the administration has appeared to go out of its way to downplay the significance of this outbreak, leading many observers to question whether ordinary communications protocols were imposed to control the story rather than fight the disease.
Mixed messages ripe for oversight
The administration has delivered mixed messages on the coronavirus for many weeks. President Trump contradicted warnings about the disease from medical professionals. The CDC failed to take steps to ensure the availability of adequate test kits. Top advisors to the president called the epidemic and media responses to it a hoax, “fake news”, and nothing worse than the flu.
The coronavirus has surpassed estimates of experts in its infectiousness and fatality rates. The public ought to demand not only a robust government response to the crisis, but oversight into why agencies were caught flat-footed and unprepared. Why were there inadequate test kits? Why weren’t state and local governments authorized to do testing? Why were there delays in addressing the virus? The administration stopped travel from China but did little else to mitigate against harm to Americans. Once the crisis passes, Inspectors General from HHS, DOJ, and DHS should look to whether lessons learned from the response to Hurricane Katrina went unheeded. And Congress should consider legislation (beyond the CARES Act) to address any weaknesses identified. The cost of inaction will be too high to ignore.