On Thursday morning, Donald Trump took aim at Joe Biden with a
fresh series of tweets that blamed Barack Obama and Biden for
“complicating” the CDC and for an H1N1 flu response that was a
“disaster.” Trump then had the absolute audacity to claim that
since taking the White House he had cut “all the red tape,”
making the CDC and other agencies better able to meet a pandemic
The idea that Barack Obama is somehow to blame for what everyone
agrees is a completely bungled response to the novel coronavirus is handy,
especially for a White House where assigning blame is often the top
priority in any situation, and even more so when Joe Biden looks
set to win the Democratic nomination. But it’s also
completely ridiculous. And the idea that Trump has done anything
that improved the situation is more ridiculous still.
Trump begins by claiming that his “closing the borders”
slowed the progress of coronavirus in the United States. It’s a
fiction that Trump has used over and over, in an effort to draw a
connection between his xenophobic anti-immigration policies and the
pandemic. It’s the same reason that Trump described the novel
coronavirus as “a foreign virus” in his address to the nation,
before putting in his utterly arbitrary ban on some Europeans from
some nations flying to the U.S. It’s also the reason many
Republicans have begun referring to COVID-19 as “Wuhan
Of course, Trump didn’t close any borders “early.” In
fact, still hasn’t closed any borders. He restricted some flights
directly from China—which, shocker, doesn’t have a border with
the United States—and that was it.
But it would have been difficult to do anything about
the 2009 H1N1 flu epidemic by closing borders because, as the CDC explains, that novel flu virus emerged within the
United States. Closing borders might have saved others from the
U.S., but it certainly couldn’t have made a difference at home.
Trump also calls the Obama response plan “a disaster,” claims
that Obama took six months to declare an emergency, and that Biden
had to apologize for the response. None of this is true. Of course,
since Trump’s source for the information was Fox News’ Lou
Dobbs, that’s not surprising.
In fact, the Obama administration declared a national health
emergency immediately when the disease broke out just a few weeks
after Obama took office. That declaration came within two weeks of
the first detected case of the virus as the U.S. launched a
crash program to develop tests, vaccine, and formulate a response.
Those very first cases were found to already be circulating in the
population, because the flu — and it was a flu — had not been
identified as unique until that point. The very first cases were
detected in children, in California, and the first two cases were
130 miles apart with no apparent connections, indicating there was
a wide community spread before the disease was first detected. Days
later, cases in Texas showed that the virus had likely spread over
large areas of the country before it was first detected.
That first month put scientists in the United States exactly
where Chinese scientists were last December — minus the efforts
to suppress information. They had to identify the virus, isolate
it, and determine what features made it different from other types
of flu. The CDC’s Emergency Operations Center went to work one
week after the detection of the first case. That same day, the CDC
issued both the first test kits and began work on a vaccine. A week
after that, the gene of the virus had been completely sequenced.
All of this happened faster than with the novel coronavirus, even
though the technology at the time was considerably slower when it
came to genetic sequencing.
It’s not a matter that the H1N1 flu in 2009 killed 12,000
Americans … it did. It’s a matter that it killed only 12,000
Americans when initial predictions had been much more dire. That
was because a vaccine was genuinely rushed into production
— that emergency that Obama declared six months later, was to
allow isolation of patients and to push the vaccine out when the
virus returned in the fall.
Following this event, Obama and Biden conducted a review of the
response — which was widely regarded as a model used around the
world — and identified points at which the planning and response
could have been improved. That caused them to create a pandemic
response team. A team which Donald Trump tore apart even as he was replacing the CDC chief with a loyal sycophant.