Lethal incompetence: Masks

The eruption in demand for dwindling amounts of masks has resulted in a kind of global supply-chain bedlam. In the United States, the federal government has decided against commandeering American factories to create a new stream of masks. Instead, federal officials are competing against states, hospitals and medical suppliers for the same pool of masks, which come mostly from China.

–Jack Nicas, “Profiteers and Pool Noodles: The Mask Market Is a Total Mess
Hospitals, governments, do-gooders and hucksters are all competing. Scams and prices are soaring,” New York Times, April 3, 2020

In the United State, three months after the administration of Donald Trump received intelligence and other information about the developing coronavirus epidemic, and over two months after its impact in the United States had become clear to informed scientists, the federal government has still failed to take the kind of emergency actions necessary to ensure that health workers have sufficient masks to protect themselves from infection while treating patients.

Two months after the threat was obviously clear to scientists, the U.S. government has not taken sufficient energetic action to ensure that the public has access to surgical masks to help protect themselves, in conjunction with the social distancing and stay-at-home orders that are currently in place in over 30 states.

What is worse, the government has lied to the American people about the protection that might be offered by surgical masks to those members of the public who must go out in order to carry out essential tasks, such as buying groceries and going to pharmacies.

Aside from willful refusal to recognize and acknowledge the nature of the threat, based on science and the opinions of epidemiological experts, one of the greatest failures of the American administration has been its failure to marshall the enormous productive resources of the United States to produce the necessary equipment and personnel required to meet the threat.

The crippling failures included: 1) a failure to provide the many millions of tests required; 2) a failure to ensure the necessary supply of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), including masks; 3) a failure to take effective action to produce a sufficient number of hospital beds, Intensive Care Units (ICU’s), and ventilators; and 4) a failure to organize and deploy a sufficient number of medical personnel to staff the ICU’s and operate the ventilators that may be needed to save hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives.

All of this lethally incompetent governmental response is epitomized by the decision not to order the production of masks in the U.S.

As Jack Nicas reports in the New York Times today, “In the United States, the federal government has decided against commandeering American factories to create a new stream of masks.”

This decision is a poignant illustration of the lethal incompetence of this administration under its current leadership. It is but one of countless endemic failures in the Trump administration as it is currently organized.

The second aspect of the present fiasco has been the continuing failure of the administration to tell the truth to the American people. Leaving aside the countless lies and misrepresentations that have come from the top of the administration, let us focus only on what they have said about masks.

First, they deliberately misled the American people by asserting that surgical masks are not needed by the general public because they offer no or little protection and, moreover, are not needed in view of the social-distancing and stay-at-home orders that are in place in a majority of states.

Their initially unstated rationale was that the masks were needed by medical personnel, and that this disinformation was necessary in order to manage the lack of capacity problem. In recent days, they have added a totally specious rationale for not recommending even the use of home-made masks–that such a recommendation could lead people to be overconfident about the efficacy of the masks, and relax their compliance with social-distancing orders.

In other words, a duplicitous government has decided to lie to the American people in order to manage a lack of supply problem that is entirely of its own creation.

The key point here is the belief by high government officials that the people are stupid (e.g., would relax compliance with social-distancing recommendations), or that they can be lied to (e.g., surgical masks are ineffective) in order to ensure that medical personnel get the masks.

The obvious contradiction between telling the public surgical masks are ineffective and emphasizing that they are needed by medical personnel for their own protection merely underlines the belief of officials that the American people are incredibly stupid, and that science can be ignored in order to manipulate them.

The net result has been a complete loss of governmental credibility, with the attendant confusion and disorganization one might expect.

The coronavirus pandemic will not be effectively controlled by a lethally incompetent administration which has lost all credibility.

A robust administrative structure must be established, now, to which the White House delegates authority under the Defense Production Act and other emergency authorities. The White House needs to get out of the picture, given its manifest duplicity and lethal incompetence.

Most importantly, the administration must stop lying to the American people. Those who are unable to stop lying must exit or be removed from the coronavirus command team.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.