Stephen Hunter

Anatomy of a Disaster

(Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash)

Stephen Hunter looks at the series of unfortunate events that unfolded which led to the disaster of the coronavirus pandemic response in the United States.


In 1976, near the end of the Ford administration, Dr. David Sencer made an honest mistake. Based on the evidence he was seeing, he anticipated a looming pandemic, the swine flu, and fast-tracked a vaccine to combat it before it could get a grip. It’s what you’d want people in his position to do. But then, two things happened. First, a few people died from the vaccine in its early rollout. And second, the swine flu, as a respectable pandemic, fizzled; it never really got going.

For these actions, he lost his job as head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the world’s leader in the study and prevention of infectious diseases.

To reiterate, the man did everything right. Not to mention, he did so decisively and courageously; he put his entire career on the line. As Director of the CDC, if you don’t anticipate, you fail at the most important aspect of your job: stopping widespread disease infections. By the time a pandemic becomes apparent, it is already too late; there’s nothing but rearview mirror reactivity from there on in. This, we all know, the hard way.

Now, follow the ball. When Sencer got bounced, the government decided to make the Directorship of the CDC an appointment position, thinking it would make the Agency more accountable. Up to then, it had been a bureaucratic, civil service position with an average career span of anywhere from ten to fifteen years. It tended to go to people who had worked their way up through the system. In short, it went to people who knew what they were doing and knew the organization. Merit and competence were the principles by which they were measured.

However, in 1976, in the wake of Dr. Sencer, the position was changed to being at the “pleasure of the president.” By the time you hit the Reagan years, not only is the CDC being degraded on the budget front, but the Directorship had become a purely political appointment. Directors ever since Reagan have lasted an average of 1.6 years. Fealty to a non-scientific, non-medical entity—the President of the United States—has become the crucial qualification. That and a healthy fear of making any independent decisions; you don’t want to be anywhere near the front page. The CDC, instead of being a leader in its field, became a major cowering, quivering foot dragger.


The CDC, instead of being a leader in its field, became a major cowering, quivering foot dragger. 


Through the ’90s, the ’00s, and into the ’20s, the CDC gets more and more starved of public financing (because, you know, grunt along with the Reaganites, “Government … bad”) with an ever-revolving door of Directors. Then the fecal matter really hits the wall, the chickens come home to roost, and numerous other clichés arrive in the chaotic, anti-scientific, anti-managerial style of Donald Trump.

And, wouldn’t you know it, along comes that spikey, little virus.

So, at the top end you have the Trump team, all shooting from the hip, throwing all sorts of crazy things out, day after day—a real Wild West of bleach drinking and made-up stats, and contradictory decisions—and at the other end you have this timid, beaten down, afraid of its own political shadow CDC who won’t blink unless Trump says, “Blink.” One’s too wacky and the other’s way too conservative.

The fact of the matter is, you don’t need a David Sencer, until you do. You don’t need a functioning, well-managed government agency, until you do. Many knew that Trump was one lucky SOB; with his hands off the wheel approach, that no catastrophe or crisis had happened on his watch. But in his last year in office, his luck ran out and, with it, so did the luck of 590,000 people and their families.


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