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America’s response to the Wuhan coronavirus has inspired considerable debate on whether the United States government is doing enough to fight the outbreak. President Donald Trump recently asked Vice President Mike Pence with leading the Washington response this past Wednesday and legislators proposed an increase to emergency spending beyond Trump’s initial proposal.

White House Coronavirus Response: Too Little, Too Late?

The White House initially proposed $2.5 billion, of which only $1.25 billion is new, for funding anti-coronavirus efforts, but Democratic members of Congress felt it was too little and requested $8.5 billion.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the funding “brings desperately-needed resources to the global fight against coronavirus.” Schumer was harshly critical of Trump’s handling of the issue, calling it “indicative of his towering incompetence and further proof that he and his administration aren’t taking the coronavirus crisis as seriously as they need to be.” 

“We’ve seen no sign that President Trump has any plan or urgency to deal with the spread of the coronavirus — we need real leadership and we need it fast,” Schumer said.

Schumer’s request would allocate $1.5 billion for the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, $3 billion for the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund, $2 billion for state and local governments, $1 billion for the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and $1 billion for the National Institutes of Health for developing a vaccine, CNN reported.

Funding must be approved by both houses of Congress and receive Trump’s approval. Discussions between the two chambers have already begun. 

Republicans have also expressed concern, suggesting both parties may reach a quick agreement to dedicate more funding to fight the coronavirus. Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama chastised Trump for “low-balling” the request. 

A Bad Time to Reduce Funding

At the same time, the Trump administration has proposed cuts to medical spending in foreign aid in 2021. Congress allocated $55 billion for this year, but the White House proposed reducing it to $44 billion next year.

“Like the President’s previous budgets, this year’s request is a waste of the paper it’s printed on,” remarked Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Proposing such reckless cuts to our critical foreign policy tools isn’t a serious proposal.”

The president’s budget would cut funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) by half, cutting over $3 billion, even though it would add a meager $15 million to USAID. It would also create a $25 million Emergency Reserve Fund. 

“We said, ‘Of all things to be doing in the midst of a global pandemic, you’re cutting funds for global health,’” a Senate aide commented on the condition of anonymity to Foreign Policy. “Their response was: ‘We did what we could with the funds we were told we could spend.’” 

The Trump Administration’s Leadership Vacuum

There are also leadership questions in Washington. Despite Trump appointing Pence to lead the response, the administration previously asked two officials to resign from positions of power that could have assisted the White House.

In April 2018, former Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert was shown the door by former National Security Advisor John Bolton. Bossert had prior experience working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

Congressional representatives would prefer to have someone with a background in science and health to lead the response. Previously, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was in charge, but Trump was reported unhappy with his handling of the coronavirus efforts.

“The Trump administration must appoint a point-person—a czar—to implement a real plan to manage the coronavirus: an independent, non-partisan, global health expert with real expertise,” Schumer declared in Senate. “Somebody who is a scientist, who knows these issues and can coordinate the myriad of federal agencies to fight the fight and prevent American lives from being lost.”

The administration had such a person in Rear Adm. Tim Ziemer who served as Senior Director for Global Health Security and Biodefence. He was forced out in May 2018 and his team was disbanded. 

“There’s an enormous vacuum with the abolishment of that particular unit, and certainly Adm. Ziemer was doing an extraordinary job,” said Dennis Carroll, infectious disease expert who led USAID’s ebola response. “His departure from the [National Security Council], I think, has left us all in a much more vulnerable position.”

At a Democratic primary debate in South Carolina, candidate Michael Bloomberg gave a sour review of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus. 

“The president fired the pandemic specialists in this country two years ago,” said Bloomberg, “so there’s nobody here to figure out what the hell we should be doing.”

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