Commentary: The CDC has crumbled when we need it most



Throughout the current coronavirus pandemic, the CDC has failed to lead the American people.

“If anything like SARS happened again, everyone in the world knows who they would call: they would call us. And we would step up,” Tanja Popovic, the former CDC Chief Science Officer, said in 2007. 

Popovic said this regarding how the CDC was doing their  9/11 restructuring. The CDC, like most government agencies, underwent a complete overhaul as a direct result of the fear and uncertainty that gripped the nation after the Twin Towers’ fall, leading to the question of CDC performance.

Popovic’s assertion captures the belief once shared by most of the nation: that the CDC would be a leader who would guide the nation to safety in the event of the unthinkable. But after events like the Spanish Influenza, time marched on and the world forgot about the dangers of pandemics. They were seen as a relic of the past, and many thought that our modern medical industry made us invincible.

The CDC was seen as less of a priority, and money was distributed elsewhere. The military received $686.1 billion dollars in 2019 (in peacetime), while, according to the Fiscal Year 2019 Annual Report, “[The CDC’s budget] totaled $5.7 billion supporting public health programs and research around the world.”

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, a coronavirus, spread throughout 2003, resulting in 800 deaths and infecting 8,000 individuals.

During the SARS outbreak, the CDC got more funding and began to research the virus, but it was short term. After the virus was contained, funding dried up. No further research was made concerning coronaviruses, and the world learned nothing from SARS. 

In 2012, another coronavirus emerged as a threat, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. Similarly, it caused 800 deaths and sickened 2,500 people, but it was stopped before it could reach pandemic status. 

Once again, MERS funding surged and fell for the CDC. This unsustainable system of a coronavirus emerging, then being suppressed and ignored was treated as a permanent plan, and the concerning increase in coronavirus outbreaks was seen as normal.

However, the rise of so many new viruses in the first place was beginning to sound alarms. Scientists recognized the threat and tried to raise awareness. 

“The world is ill-prepared to respond to a severe influenza pandemic or to any similarly global, sustained and threatening public-health emergency,” Harvey Fineberg, former president of the US Institute of Medicine, wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Dr. Fineberg was not the only one trying to alert world leaders to the lack of preparation for the next pandemic. For 20 years, experts have been wargaming and predicting how pandemic scenarios would play out. Government officials would give briefings to lawmakers, with incredibly detailed scenarios including a hypothetical virus’s origin location, infectivity rate, death toll and response.  

Parallel civilian efforts to educate the public were initiated as well. Bill Gates gave a TEDTalk in 2015 about pandemics. The Atlantic reporter Ed Yong and Washington Post reporter Lena Sun both wrote about how unprepared the US is to deal with a pandemic, years before Covid-19 was discovered in humans. 

On February 26th, 2018, Julia Belluz wrote, “America has played a major role in stopping pandemics globally — but many signs point to the US retreating. It’s not an exaggeration to say that with each passing day, the threat that one of those outbreaks turns into a pandemic increases.”

These warnings, however, were ignored by lawmakers. Thus, when COVID-19 was finally declared a pandemic, their prophetic words became reality. Yet even the predictions didn’t illustrate the sheer corruption and ineptitude the Trump administration would be responsible for.

The CDC’s problems predate this administration. The CDC was underfunded and minimized for many administrations before the current one, but it was the duty of President Trump’s officials to realize that and rectify the issue. Donald Trump had no shortage of experts warning him about the dangers of pandemics. 

Instead of healing the organization, the administration exacerbated the problem. 

They turned the weakened, neglected CDC into an organization that actively harmed the country; all to appeal to an egotistical and deceptive president. 

The CDC usually serves as an important advisor to the president, but the organization has been sidelined, threatened and controlled by the president.

Trump has turned himself into the puppet master of what is meant to be an apolitical leader in modern medicine. He has forced the CDC to be a marionette that spouts his incoherent and downright malicious lies, his hands manipulating both the CDC and the American public. 

Trump has turned himself into the puppet master of what is meant to be an apolitical leader in modern medicine. He has forced the CDC to be a marionette that spouts his incoherent and downright malicious lies, his hands manipulating both the CDC and the American public.

— Aiden Sherman

Recently, the CDC published a new set of guidelines, acknowledging that COVID-19 was transmissible through the air. It was quietly added, with little announcement, and was met with a resounding… nothing.

The US has become numb to news regarding the pandemic, exemplified by the fact that when the death toll surpassed 200,000, it gained little media presence. The 100,000 milestone, on the other hand, had made many headlines. 

The new Trump-controlled CDC has become almost comically out of touch with reality.  The knowledge that Covid-19 is an airborne disease was public knowledge at that point, and the virus was announced to have been airborne by the World Health Organization months ago.

A few days after issuing those guidelines, even that acknowledgement of reality was too much for the White House, who removed the assertion with an assumably false statement.

“Unfortunately an early draft of a revision went up without any technical review.”, said Jay Butler, the deputy director for infectious diseases. 

As though that weren’t enough, a lengthy essay on the CDC website now details the importance of reopening schools, ignoring the high transmission rate of COVID-19, and ignoring both medical scientists and basic common sense. 

Health officials are disregarding other health officials, which speaks volumes about this organization. President Trump’s control over the CDC is foolish and incredibly dangerous.

This control has had consequences. 

Morale has plummeted in the CDC. ‘Jokes’ about moving to New Zealand or Australia have become common. 

“People in public health by and large are people who just see suffering and want there to be less of it,” said an anonymous CDC employee, “That’s what drives you into public health. I mean, God knows you don’t do it for the money.” 

An anti-science, anti-reality, and anti-logic Washington has turned the CDC into a sick punchline. Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the CDC Director, has been facing widespread calls for his resignation and has been rightfully accused of making the organization bow to the will of the president.

Not only did the Trump administration fail the CDC and the American people, but so did the Obama and Bush administrations for not taking the threat of a pandemic seriously and expanding funding for the CDC. 

Had there been sufficient research and funding into coronaviruses after SARS and MERS, more could have been done when Covid-19 reared its ugly head. 

More people could have been saved. 

The CDC, once widely seen as the gold-standard for health agencies around the globe, has become a pathetic tool of this president and buckled under political pressure.

The organization has transformed into a spectre to lure the United States further into the dark woods, rather than a beacon to lead us out.