Nicholas Kristof's rehash of US coronavirus mistakes is pretty misleading

Nicholas Kristof has an opinion piece at the NY Times today about the “colossal failure” of the US response to the coronavirus. At this point it’s pretty hard to argue the response has been a success but the real problem with Kristof’s piece is that it’s a retread of a bunch of misleading claims all of which seem designed to blame the failure on one man. One guess who that is.


There’s plenty of blame to go around, involving Democrats as well as Republicans, but Trump in particular “recklessly squandered lives,” in the words of an unusual editorial this month in the New England Journal of Medicine. Death certificates may record the coronavirus as the cause of death, but in a larger sense vast numbers of Americans died because their government was incompetent.

The piece works its way through the pandemic chronologically and the early part places the blame where it belongs: on China. Even so, Kristof gets it wrong in his first sentence of this section:

When the health commission of Wuhan, China, announced on Dec. 31 that it had identified 27 cases of a puzzling pneumonia, Taiwan acted with lightning speed.

The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission did not announce these cases on Dec. 31. That’s something the WHO claimed had happened for several months as part of an official timeline of the pandemic, but the WHO eventually admitted it wasn’t true and corrected the timeline. The current WHO timeline notes that what actually happened was that WHO picked up on media reports in China about cases of pneumonia. WHO then made two requests for more information and finally got a response from China three days later.

In China, President Xi Jinping issued orders on Jan. 7 for handling the coronavirus, but they were inadequate. If, at that time or soon after, Xi had ordered a more modest version of the Wuhan lockdown that was to come, it is possible that the virus could have been stifled before it spread around the globe…

That first half of January represents a huge missed opportunity for the world. If the United States, the World Health Organization and the world media had raised enough questions and pressed China, then perhaps the Chinese central government would have intervened in Wuhan earlier. And if Wuhan had been locked down just two weeks earlier, it’s conceivable that this entire global catastrophe could have been averted.


Here’s what Kristof doesn’t say. One of the reasons the world remained in the dark is that the WHO went along with every fabricated claim coming out of China. China knew almost immediately that the virus was spreading person to person but lied about it and the WHO repeated those lies. And when Trump closed the border to China at the end of January, the WHO’s Dr. Tedros said it would do more harm than good.

Kristof then moves on to the bungling of testing in the U.S.

The C.D.C. devised a faulty test, and turf wars in the federal government prevented the use of other tests…

It’s unfair to blame the testing catastrophe entirely on Trump, for the failures unfolded several paygrades below him. Partly that’s because Trump appointees, like Robert Redfield, director of the C.D.C., simply aren’t the A team.

In any case, presidents set priorities for lower officials. If Trump had pushed aides as hard to get accurate tests as he pushed to repel refugees and migrants, then America almost certainly would have had an effective test by the beginning of February and tens of thousands of lives would have been saved.

Again, Kristof breezes over the details and has the timeline wrong. Since at least April partisan Democrats have been trying their best to blame this failure on Trump. Kristof is at least aware enough of the facts to admit it’s not entirely Trump’s fault but then turns around and suggests it’s entirely Trump’s fault. That’s nonsense.


Here’s what actually happened. The CDC test was created in late January and sent out to labs for verification. The labs quickly ran into a problem. A segment of the test was giving false positives. It turned out one of the chemicals used in production of the test had been contaminated. That segment of the test wasn’t necessary and wasn’t included in tests created by other countries but because of a bunch of red tape, labs mandated to use the test as designed and that meant using the faulty segment. It wasn’t until Feb. 12 that the CDC admitted there was a problem and seemed to be planning to start over and manufacture new tests. The FDA finally stepped in on Feb. 24 and told the CDC to stop trying to rescue their failed test by manufacturing a fixed version in house. Instead, he issued an order allowing labs to use only the portion of the test that worked on Feb. 26.

There’s no doubt this was a huge waste of precious time caused by bureaucratic arrogance and probably a bit of human pride. It was a genuine disaster which cost us weeks. But there was very little President Trump could have done to fix it. Had he tried to step in and tell the scientists at the CDC how to run their test, he would have been accused of stepping all over the experts. In any case, it’s doubtful anything could have fixed the problem by the beginning of February because it’s not clear the CDC even knew what the problem was that early.


Trump supporters note, correctly, that within the United States, the states with the highest mortality rates have been Democrat-led: New Jersey has had the most deaths per capita, followed by New York. It’s true that local politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, made disastrous decisions, as when Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City urged people in March to “get out on the town despite coronavirus.” But local officials erred in part because of the failure of testing: Without tests, they didn’t know what they faced.

Public health is a state issue in the United States. The failures at the state level get brushed aside as a result of a failure in testing. But the truth is that even if we had more testing states would not have shut down much earlier than they did because the U.S. death toll was close to zero. It wasn’t until the death toll began climbing that people were willing to shut down everything and by that point it was really too late to prevent the first wave.

Kristof also says all of it would have been okay if we’d just used face masks:

Japan is a densely populated country that did not test much and yet has only 2 percent as many deaths per capita as the United States. One reason is that Japanese have long embraced face masks, which Dr. Redfield has noted can be at least as effective as a vaccine in fighting the pandemic. A country doesn’t have to do everything, if it does some things right.

Yet in retrospect, Trump did almost everything wrong. He discouraged mask wearing.


What Kristof doesn’t tell you is that the WHO, the Surgeon General and even Dr. Fauci were all against masks early on. Fauci told 60 Minutes in early March, “right now in the United States people should not be walking around with masks.”  Surgeon General Jerome Adams told Face the Nation “masks do not work for the general public” around the same time in March.

So foreshortening this whole issue to the brief line Trump “discouraged mask wearing” leaves out a lot of important detail. It was the scientists and experts who initially discouraged mask wearing. Why would Kristof leave all of this out? Obviously because it complicates the narrative he’s trying to sell readers.

There’s more but hopefully you get the point. There were a lot of mistakes and missed opportunities. The U.S. could have and should have done a lot better responding to this early on, but the failures Kristof points to often happened among the scientists and experts at the CDC, the WHO, etc. And even when looking at the political leadership, a lot of the poor decision making happened at the state level.

Asking Trump, to second guess all of the scientists and elected Democratic governors is a silly partisan game Democrats have been playing for months. The most absurd version of this argument is the one uttered by Joe Biden. Kristof doesn’t go quite that far but he’s playing the same game for the same reason.


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David Strom 5:30 PM | March 04, 2024