Get coronavirus under control first, but don’t forget about accountability 

In grappling with the emerging COVID-19 pandemic, we need to follow historical precedent and first confront our problems and then assure accountability.

When Americans experience a crisis, we harness the powers of government and turn to and beyond our communities. We help each other and we mourn.

After Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941, people flocked to sign up for military service. Americans put in victory gardens, cooperated in rationing and rolling bandages, and built ships, tanks and aircrafts. 

After the September 11 attacks of 2001, those near the Wall Trade Center and Pentagon helped people who fled or were trapped in attack sites. Many others contributed money and supplies for survivors.

And in both cases, formal investigations were held to find out what went wrong. These asked what was missed and who was responsible. 

The 9/11 Commission Report found that anti-terrorism experts who bridged the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations had been very worried about “spectacular” attacks. In late May, 2001 Richard Clarke wrote to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, “When these attacks occur, as they likely will, we will wonder what more we could have done to stop them.” That report also included recommendations to further America’s security.

Now we are dealing with a global pandemic with a bungled response.

President Donald Trump has spent a good deal of time downplaying the threat. The disease was first detected in the U.S. in January, but less than a month ago, Trump said “the 15 [cases], within a couple of days, is going to be down to close to zero.” He called complaints about how the crisis was being handled “a new hoax,” and accused Democrats of politicizing the situation.  

President Donald Trump holds up a piece of paper concerning Google, as he speaks during a briefing about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Having reliable statistics helps experts manage the outbreak, but testing in the U.S. has been limited. Trump seems quite concerned about how figures reflect on his political health. 

Regarding evacuating a cruise ship, Trump said “I would rather [have the people stay on board] because I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double.” And Trump repeated a falsehood by saying that anyone who wanted to be tested could be.

When asked the other day about the delay in making testing more available, Trump proclaimed, “I don’t take responsibility at all.” He called a reporter who followed up and asked why his administration disbanded the pandemic response office in the National Security Council “nasty” and asserted, “When you say me, I didn’t do it. … I don’t know anything about it.” And, in the same event, Trump falsely stated that a Google site and other programs just being planned would soon be available. All of this is very different from the Obama-Biden administration’s competent reactions to Swine Flu and Ebola outbreaks.

Between Trump’s inadequate, self-serving responses and conservative pundits misleading others by saying COVID-19 is “the common cold” or characterizing the shutdowns of events taken for public health measures as being part of “mass hysteria,” we now have a public whose views of the pandemic and commitments to take actions to thwart it divide on party lines.

Such furious partisanship is nothing new in the Trump era. Nearly all legislators from Trump’s party have refused to use their institutional prerogatives to hold him accountable for abuse of power. And the parties are divided over paying attention to experts on climate change, the greatest threat to future generations.

Despite those divides, we share a serious health crisis with grave economic implications. COVID-19 is more fatal and more infectious than the flu. Experts estimate that 47% of Maine adults are at risk for serious illness if infected with coronavirus. 

The greatest need now is to prevent COVID-19 from spreading rapidly so that it doesn’t overwhelm our health system and thus keep sick and injured people from being properly treated. Staying out of public places and handwashing will go a long way. Maine government is handling the situation well and Mainers are helping each other.

But once this disease is under control, there needs to be accountability for how the pandemic was mishandled. Real congressional oversight is necessary, an independent commission could be formed, and there should be a political reckoning.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.