Your Views: The autoimmune presidency

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Your Views: The autoimmune presidency
An illustration of the COVID-19 virus. (Image/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
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To the editor:

Antibodies are our immune system’s first line of defense against pathogenic viruses. Upon recognizing an antigen, a unique molecule belonging to a pathogen, antibodies direct other parts of the immune system to act–either to outright destroy the pathogen or impede the pathogen-induced biological process that causes disease.

In the presence of the coronavirus, antibodies sometimes recognize non-pathogens as pathogens and thus direct the immune system to attack the healthy cells necessary to the proper function of the human body. The body turns on itself, mimicking an autoimmune condition.

America’s body politic is suffering from a similar condition. The nation’s president has a duty to direct the vast national enterprise to protect public health. In the presence of the coronavirus, however, he has misdirected that enterprise, subverting our capacity to save ourselves.

His derelictions include multiple failures of leadership, but I focus only on the president’s failure to execute four tasks necessary to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic.

Contingency planning: After the 2017 inauguration, the Department of Health and Human Services conducted a series of exercises, “Crimson Contagion,” to assess the response capabilities of the federal government in the face of an influenza pandemic. The assessment, released in October 2019, warned us of an ill-prepared and poorly coordinated federal response, along with other problems we could have resolved, but didn’t.

A competent and caring president would have acted to correct the identified shortcomings. Instead, this president made short shrift of HHS’s work, even claiming that “nobody could have predicted” something like this, though HHS essentially had. The president’s feigned ignorance fated us to needless suffering.

The president’s statement also betrays naiveté regarding the nature of crises and the importance of planning. Crises are inherently unpredictable, and the planning process highlights an enterprise’s strengths and limitations, helping it learn improvisation, a most valuable capability when combating a volatile and uncertain viral pandemic. Predictability is no prerequisite for success; its absence no justification for failure.

Sense-making: The president’s failure to make sense of emerging information, to recognize an existential crisis, delayed the U.S. response and caused unnecessary death. On March 6, six weeks after he had been informed of an apparent pandemic, the president finally and reluctantly acknowledged it, but claimed that it “came out of nowhere.” Of course it didn’t. The president simply was too inept to recognize the existential crisis for weeks on end, even when told.

Decision making: Though decision making in conditions of uncertainty is always fraught, the president’s failure to make decisions quickly has allowed the virus to grow into a barely manageable monstrosity that we are now trying to tame.

When the president finally assented to the emergency, he made a rookie mistake, limiting decision-making authority to an inner circle of aides. The results were counterproductive: increased decision-making time, confused federal and state government responsibilities and decreased accountability. The arrangement also overwhelmed the inner circle lacking in experience, analytical capability, humility and credibility.

Meaning making: In a national emergency, the president is obliged to give meaning to a crisis by helping stakeholders understand the situation. Greater understanding reduces anxiety and builds confidence, even when the situation is dire. Greater understanding also helps individuals prepare themselves psychologically to face the coming challenges, implement appropriate physical protective measures and assess whether and how they might assist the crisis response.

Here again, the president has failed. He has displayed ignorance about the science of the virus, engaged in fantastic speculation, exhibited inability to empathize with the American public and jettisoned truth. The result is a public that increasingly distrusts government, feels anxious, uses fabrications to fill in information voids and engages in risky behavior.

We who have observed the president when he was a businessman and a television performer recognized that he has long eschewed the moral sentiments of great and good leaders. Since he was sworn in as president, we have seen him attack truth and justice and all that is necessary for a harmonious society.

Now, as we face the greatest health crisis in a century, we have seen him induce an autoimmune-like condition upon our nation. Like a malfunctioning antibody, he has attacked the institutions, practices and knowledge we need to preserve ourselves.

-Matthew Feely, Alexandria

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