To the casual observer it might seem that this example of the U.S. being woefully unprepared for responding to a predictable pandemic is simply another case of society’s blindness to a familiar risk. Nobody saw it coming.
But what if that wasn’t really true? What if somebody, or possibly quite a few somebodies, did in fact see it coming? And what if this person or persons tried to take actions so that the U.S. would be much better prepared to deal with it?
In fact, that’s exactly what happened. Former President George W. Bush was one of those people who “saw it coming.” It turns out that President Bush read John Barry’s “The Great Influenza” in the summer of 2005, in the turbulent wake of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Alarmed by historical facts, Bush pushed hard that fall to make large-scale preparedness for the next major pandemic a national priority.
But, much like the captain of a ship, the former president quickly realized the limits of his power. Specifically, the significantly limited impact a president has on an enormous, unwieldy and generally unresponsive bureaucracy such as the federal government. It can be argued that the unresponsive nature of our government was an intentional characteristic born of the fear and loathing the Founding Fathers had of monarchy and mob rule. Or, perhaps, Congress, being a co-equal branch of government, ultimately decides exactly how the public’s money will be spent and is under no obligation to follow the president’s lead. Regardless, there are consequences that arise from it.
It turns out that President Bush’s apparent obsession was not entirely shared by the rest of government and, with all other developing crises, new demands and shifting priorities, ultimately never got the funding and follow through necessary for his vision to be fully realized.
In the prescient words of Mike Leavitt, who served as secretary of Health and Human Services in the George W. Bush administration and worked hard to prepare the U.S. for the inevitable, “In advance of a pandemic, anything you say sounds alarmist. After a pandemic starts, everything you’ve done is inadequate.” And so here we are.