'Every American Should Be Outraged' Says Pandemic Expert About Government Response

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A woman wears a mask as she waits for a ride at Union Station, in view of the Capitol, Friday, March 13, 2020 in Washington. (Matt Rourke/AP)
A woman wears a mask as she waits for a ride at Union Station, in view of the Capitol, Friday, March 13, 2020 in Washington. (Matt Rourke/AP)

What can people do to help as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb? Emerging disease expert Laurie Garrett says that’s the wrong question to ask.

“It's not just what you can do,” the author of "The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance" says. “It's what you should do.”

The number of COVID-19 cases worldwide has now topped 214,000, with more than 8,000 deaths. The United States announced that there are cases in all 50 states and cities like San Francisco are in lockdown.

Garrett — whose expertise lies in emerging diseases, foreign policy and global security — says it’s important to prevent the virus from circumnavigating the planet several times and killing hundreds of thousands of people.

The coronavirus is now moving into the southern hemisphere, which she finds concerning. As the virus dies in up north, it could take off in the southern hemisphere in poorer countries and return up north “with a vengeance” during winter, she says.

“Until we have a vaccine that really works and is available affordably to the entire planet, more than 7 billion doses,” she says, “I think this virus is here to stay.”

The president and vice president have said they think things might go back to normal in July. But Garrett thinks that estimate is “wildly optimistic”.

She predicts the virus will peak in late June or even past the Fourth of July. But by then, the coronavirus will be “full bore” in the southern hemisphere, she says.

Unless there’s an effective vaccine by this time, which Garrett doubts will happen, she thinks the virus will return to the U.S. before Christmas and take a “tough toll” again in January and February.

About half of common colds are coronaviruses, but she says COV-2 is so powerful because it’s the first time doctors are seeing such a lethal, contagious virus with a differential impact based on age.

This coronavirus is “considerably more lethal than influenzas” and 20 times more deadly than the 1918 flu epidemic, she says. Compared to 1918, doctors understand the virology of the COV-2 virus and already have more than 600 fully sequenced versions of it to study and compare, she says.

“In 1918, by the time the epidemic had gone around the world three times, they still had no clue what had caused it,” she says.

To prevent the worst possible outcome, Garrett can’t overstate the importance of social distancing.

“My goodness, if people still don't understand that they need to have social distancing, then I don't think we have any hope at all,” she says. “I think we're going to all drop dead.”

People shouldn’t focus on the burden on the individual, but instead “what we expect from our government and aren't getting,” she says. The government is still trying to decide on a strategy and that should outrage Americans, she says.

Garrett thinks the United Kingdom is the only government that looks worse than the United States based on how they’ve handled COVID-19.

Days ago, the UK said its plan was to wait for herd immunity to kick in. When the UK government saw projections that showed thousands of citizens would die due to this “asinine” policy, she says they changed their strategy.

The U.S. government isn’t doing what it should to protect citizens, she says, and President Trump changes his attitude about the epidemic at every press conference.

“It's utterly appalling, utterly inexcusable that we're this far into this epidemic with this many people at risk of dying or actually dying with so many health care workers not even having access to masks and basic protective gear,” she says.

The White House has denied the relevance of three individuals contracting COVID-19 after visiting with Trump at Mar a Lago. But Garrett says whether or not he’s infected, the virus is at Mar a Lago and potentially in the White House.

As the virus continues to spread, people should engage with their communities online or in-person and establish how to protect its vulnerable members, she says.

This can mean taking on an altruistic mission like looking after homeless folks in the area who are losing their jobs, she says. Or if a single mom loses her job because her place of business is closed, Garrett says for example, help her find ways to feed her kids and someone to look after them while she’s at the grocery store.

“We're going to see a tremendous burden of sudden onset poverty,” she says. “If we don't all look out for each other, then it's going to be a very ugly mess when we all wake up at the far end of this.”

More From The Interview

On what the government should be doing

“We don't have time for the whole list because they're not doing almost anything they should be doing. But the bottom line here is there's a role for federal government. There's a role for state. There's a role for local. We have this strange hodgepodge system of public health in America that's unlike any other country. And as a result, the real burden that's at the federal level is a combination of setting guidances, providing sort of wise strategic policy analysis, corralling resources in a timely fashion, pushing connections between public and private sector. All should be coming with wise science-based leadership from the top. And we don't have that on any single factor. Every day that we think it looks like suddenly something has emerged of a positive sunray of light out of the federal government, it gets reversed hours later. The president himself seems to change his entire attitude about this epidemic with every single press conference he does. We could ignore the president's verisimilitude and focus on others in the federal government. But it is the case that the whole federal leadership is vacillating all over the place.”

On the impact on the presidential campaign

“I think it's effectively getting canceled slowly but surely. The Democrats have already made quite a number of changes in how they're campaigning, and President Trump has stated repeatedly that he's going to continue to hold rallies and continue to aim towards a massive GOP convention. But in practical terms, he has not in the last couple of weeks had any of those giant rallies. You know, they're still trying to deny the relevance of three individuals having contracted COVID after visiting with him at Mar a Lago. But it's clear that there have already been COVID cases around the president. Whether he's become infected or not is irrelevant in a way. It means that the virus is there. It's potentially in the White House, and it certainly was in Mar a Lago, his secondary White House. What I think is already beginning to shift is much, much more use of digital campaigning and probably digital voting. And then, of course, everybody that knows anything about cyber security is going to be very nervous. But I think for the time being, we absolutely can't have large crowds. We can't have a candidate acting like a vector, like a mosquito shaking hand after hand after hand.”

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RayAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on March 18, 2020.

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