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The Unlucky Timing of an Election-Year Pandemic

By Polly Price

American flag as face mask
Photo credit: Gerd Altmann

This article appeared originally on

Well, it’s official. A presidential administration that left US citizens to sink or swim when facing the worst pandemic in a century has finally admitted what we already knew. It has given up. Saying the quiet part out loud, White House Chief-of-Staff Meadows acknowledged the coronavirus task force no longer even pretends to address the spread of the virus. But this is no surprise to anyone paying attention. This presidential administration was never interested in using the full power, resources, and authority of the federal government to combat COVID-19. And shamefully, it shows.

Chance brought us the unhappy coincidence of a pandemic and an election year for a first-term sitting president. A president who speaks and acts as though the coronavirus pandemic was a plot by Democrats to deny him a second term, so he denies its existence, spreads falsehoods, and divides the country. A president who takes no responsibility for COVID entering our shores, the failure to contain it, or the preventable deaths that have occurred and will continue in frightening numbers this fall and winter. A president who calls medical experts in his administration “idiots” and the CDC—the world’s premier disease-fighting agency—part of the “deep state.” A president who left states to deal with basically everything and then undermined their efforts constantly, whether by calling for militia to “liberate” states from public health measures put in place to save lives, or by ridiculing face masks, which, after all, are a proven measure to help limit spread, allowing businesses and schools to remain open. Even though his own administration’s experts agree that mask wearing on a wider basis could save hundreds of thousands of lives.

All the while, the United States continues to lead the world in the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths, with numbers currently hurtling toward new records. How can it possibly be that the wealthiest nation on earth, with medical expertise and institutions the envy of the world, has responded very much like a second-rate, if not a third-world country?

Under the cover of a stingy, warped view of “federalism,” it’s every state and locality for itself. Territories, states, cities, tribes, hospital systems, and healthcare facilities all compete against each other for critical medical supplies, adequate testing, and other resources. Long-term care facilities are still unable to acquire adequate PPE, let alone adequate, affordable testing. The current administration has left the nation’s defense completely up to the States while at the same time undermining public health measures its own task force deemed essential. All while the federal government sits on enormous resources and capabilities yet to be tapped.

It need not have been this way. If President Trump were to be elected to a second term, would he work harder to save lives, no longer focusing on his reelection but instead concerned about his legacy? Or might he at least stay out of the way and let the medical experts at the world’s premier health agencies guide us, without undermining every effort?

Whoever is the occupant of the Oval Office come January still has time to turn it around. A do-over is possible. Here is a short guide to immediate steps the new administration should take.

It is not too late for the federal government to mobilize for an aggressive fight against COVID-19Take these steps. 

A pandemic virus spreading as easily as COVID would always be difficult to contain, as the experience of other nations shows. Germany and France, for example, have returned to limited shutdowns in the face of a COVID resurgence. Step one for the next administration: study how other nations combat COVID-19, especially those that have been relatively successful and continue to learn. This is a pandemic, after all, and the US is not leading the way out.

There is no shortage of policy prescriptions for steps we must take. Fifty leading legal experts recently offered recommendations on how federal, state, and local leaders can better respond to COVID-19. Their proposals include: how to strengthen executive leadership for a stronger emergency response; expand access to public health; health care and telehealth; and fortify protections for workers.

My top three priorities for the next administration? Read about them here. There is so much that could yet be done, rather than just give up.

Congress is not off the hook either. In past public health emergencies, most recently Zika and Ebola, Congress held numerous oversight hearings to ask whether our federal health agencies were responding appropriately and had the resources they needed. What has the US Senate done in this pandemic? Oversight hearings in the Senate have focused on the so-called Russia “hoax” from four years ago. As if getting to the bottom of that will save lives now. The Senate committee overseeing the Department of Homeland Security has spent its time assessing discredited Russian propaganda funneled through presidential intermediaries in an apparent attempt to relitigate the prior election, or to find nonexistent crimes to make the president look better in guess what—an election year. These are not lethal threats to the American public like COVID is. If protecting Americans during a pandemic is not in the purview of Homeland Security, what is? And shouldn’t the Senate be interested in how DHS is responding?

When we think about how we can be better prepared next time—and there will be a next time, perhaps with even more lethality—what needs to change? No doubt better coordination is possible among our disease-fighting agencies and medical institutions (as President Obama’s Ebola czar proved). Harnessing the power of federal agencies to all row in the same direction requires constant effort, not the one-time appointment of a task force that soon gives up to go out on the campaign trail.

Is the federal government constitutionally restricted in favor of state action to address a pandemic? In other words, are our laws getting in the way of an adequate federal response? The answer is NO. The federal government can act on the many critical issues we face. The executive branch has ample legal authority to improve our situation, if only it would.

Our inability to control the pandemic within our borders has caused other nations to quarantine against us. We are now the exporting threat, but at least our allies express pity while they take the necessary steps to protect themselves from us. Instead of responding like a powerful, wealthy, nation with enormous reserves of scientific expertise, the US responds as if we were fifty different, relatively poor nations with inadequate access to critical medical supplies and other basics of public health. Harness the authority of the federal government and use it to protect us, please.


About the Author 

Polly Price is an award-winning legal historian and professor of law and public health at Emory, and is the author of two scholarly books and numerous articles on issues related to public health. Her book Plagues in the Nation, a narrative history of America through major outbreaks, is a forthcoming title from Beacon Press. Connect with her online at and on Twitter at @PollyJPrice.