By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
In an effort to place current events of this magnitude in perspective, this timeline of events untangles some of the chaos and confusion surrounding the pandemic now known as the COVID-19. Many of you may feel that remembering what happened at the beginning of this year is like trying to remember two years ago. The following are dates and events that are taken from readily available sources to better explain just how this disease became a crisis.
— The Publisher
The United States and South Korea both reported their first cases of COVID-19 within 24 hours of each other — Korea on Jan. 20, the United States the next day.
Even though South Korea is much closer to China, and thus much more exposed, as of April 14, 222 people died of the virus in South Korea compared to a death toll of 25,658 in the United States. Adjusting for population, the United States had 24,224 deaths that it might not have had if it had reacted as quickly and effectively as South Korea did. Put another way, 17 of every 18 Americans who have died would not have died if the U.S. had responded as South Korea did. And you can’t say we weren’t warned. Donald Trump’s own Council of Economic Advisors told him that up to half a million Americans could die in a pandemic, as did his trade representative Peter Navarro.
“The U.S. response will be studied for generations as a textbook example of a disastrous, failed effort,” Ron Klain, who led the 2014 fight against Ebola, told a Georgetown University panel on March 19. “What’s happened in Washington has been a fiasco of incredible proportions.”
Not all of that difference is due to Donald Trump’s failed leadership; America’s privatized health care system results in thousands of needless deaths each year. But Trump’s actions, inaction and his cacophony of false, conflicting and confusing statements have contributed enormously.
Because so many of his claims—such as “this is just a normal flu” or “this is being politicized to attack Trump”—have not just served to excuse Trump’s responsibility; they’ve contributed to those deaths by spreading paralyzing confusion and distrust, and counterproductive misinformation when clear direction and unity of purpose could have saved thousands of lives.
Psychologists and psychiatrists have long warned that Trump is a malignant narcissist, incapable of considering or caring about the welfare of others. There’s substantial evidence that leaders like him make pandemics both more likely and more deadly.
Dr. Frederick Burkle, a leading international public health expert, explained this in a paper published in early March.
“Trump has mimicked other autocratic leaders’ positions in managing any serious outbreak,” Burkle noted. “He has praised President Xi’s rulings and failed to comment on the Chinese ruler’s decision to punish physicians for grossly delaying international warnings and calling attention to the public health threat for which Xi was totally responsible.”
Trump’s failed response falls into three broad phases.
Mis-preparation. Even before taking office, Trump and his minions have not just ignored pandemic threats, but significantly undermined our capacity to deal with them.
Denial. When the outbreak began, Trump initially portrayed America as invulnerable (anything to contrary might hurt the economy and thus his re-election chances); he trusted the words of Xi and anyone else who supported him, rather than experts trained to understand what was happening.
Blame-shifting. When he could no longer ignore the disaster (due to its impact on Wall Street) he switched gears, claiming he’d known all along the tough fight we were in for and turned to blaming everyone but him—another common trait of autocratic malignant narcissists.
The following timeline highlights a small fraction of Trump’s failures of leadership during this crisis, a record that has left so many Americans needlessly dead. It includes:
actions taken to weaken our response, actions not taken to protect us, warnings ignored the lies he’s told that have endangered people’s lives, at risk, as well as the lies he’s told to avoid blame and/or shift it onto others.
Numbers at the end of each timeline event corresponds to the actions outlined above.
The timeline begins with the time that was wasted while he deliberately ignored the pandemic threat, which eerily resembles the way the George Bush administration ignored Al Qaeda prior to 9/11. Trump, like Bush, ignored warnings from the Democratic administration before him and the death toll this time is already dramatically much higher.
- January 2017: Before Trump’s inauguration, officials of the outgoing Barack Obama administration brief Trump’s team on the best practices for confronting a pandemic, using the model of respiratory virus originating in Asia. It literally comes with a handbook. Although Trump’s Homeland Security advisor, Tom Bossert, takes it seriously, the pandemic handbook is ignored by Trump’s team as a whole. (2) In 2018, Bossert was fired by Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton. (1)
- May 11, 2017: Trump’s director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, delivers the Worldwide Threat Assessment to Congress, including the warning that “Stagnating or declining funding for global health initiatives and lack of domestic resources threaten the continued progress against health threats,” and that “A novel or reemerging microbe that is easily transmissible between humans and is highly pathogenic remains a major threat because such an organism has the potential to spread rapidly and kill millions.” It specifically warns that, “Threats such as avian influenza and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) have pandemic potential.” Similar warnings are repeated in 2018, 2019 and 2020, though the last one remains classified. All have been ignored. (2)
- May 23, 2017: Despite the Worldwide Threat Assessment, the first Trump budget calls for huge cuts to science, medical research and disease prevention, including a 17% cut to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Americans would be less safe,” former CDC director Dr. Tom Freiden warns on Twitter. Congress ultimately rejects the cuts, but Trump keeps making them each budget year, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. (1)
- May 8, 2018: The National Security Council’s pandemic response team is disbanded in a reorganization overseen by Bolton. The top official responsible for overseeing pandemic response, Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, leaves the administration. As a result, when experts within the administration grow alarmed at the COVID-19 outbreak in January and February this year, there was no responsible body for them to turn to. (1)
- January to August 2019: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conducts a pandemic training simulation involving a disease striking similar to the COVID-19 virus. Problems encountered are strikingly similar to the ones we experience in real life. A draft report summarizing the problems they identified is simply ignored, rather than being acted on. (2)
- July 2019: The CDC’s Beijing chief is not replaced. This was not an isolated incident. Over the past three years, a CDC team working on global health security in China has been reduced from 50 people to 14. (1)
- September 2019: Trump’s own Council of Economic Advisers issues a report, “Mitigating the Impact of Pandemic Influenza through Vaccine Innovation,” warning about the dangers of pandemic—as opposed to seasonal—flu and the reasons why the market will not work to generate the capacity to protect against it. It warns that “Fatalities in the most serious scenario would exceed half a million people in the United States.” (2)
- October 2019: The Trump administration refuses to renew funding for PREDICT, a pandemic early warning system that was funded for two previous 5-year cycles, thus effectively ending the initiative. PREDICT worked with 60 different foreign laboratories, including the lab in Wuhan, China that identified COVID-19. (1)
- Dec. 1, 2019: This is the earliest date of symptom onset, according to a study in the journal Lancet.
- Dec. 8, 2019: A patient in the city of Wuhan seeks medical help for pneumonia-like symptoms.
- Dec. 29, 2019: Local hospitals in Hubei report the first four cases of a “pneumonia of unknown etiology.” U.S. medical intelligence analysts reportedly note these developments in December, but the extent of what they know or do is not yet known.
- Dec. 30, 2019: Dr. Li Wenliang posts messages about the appearance of seven confirmed SARS-like cases in a clinical medicine WeChat group. He is subsequently interrogated by security police who give him a warning notice and censure him for “making false comments on the internet.”
- Dec. 31, 2019: China confirms the existence of a new virus.
- Jan. 1, 2020: The CDC begins developing reports for the Department of Health and Human Services about the situation.
- Jan. 3: A Chinese official officially informs CDC Director Robert Redfield of the outbreak of a respiratory illness in the city of Wuhan. Redfield later relayed the information to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. Azar informs the White House National Security Council.
- Jan 8: Li Wenliang contracts COVID-19 (not yet named.)
- Jan. 8: The CDC issues its first public warning about the outbreak in China, saying that it is monitoring the situation and that people should take precautions when traveling to Wuhan.
- Jan. 17: The CDC begins monitoring major airports for passengers arriving from China.
- Jan. 18: Azar, who has been trying to speak to Trump about the virus, is finally able to talk with him, but Trump first interjects to ask when flavored vaping products would be back on the market.
- Jan. 20: The World Health Organization reports cases in China, Thailand, Japan and South Korea.
- Jan. 21: The first confirmed coronavirus case arrives in the United States, in Seattle. WHO says the virus risk globally is high.
- Jan. 22: A reporter asks if there are worries about a pandemic. Trump responds with his first comments about the coronavirus, saying he is not concerned about a pandemic. “No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. … It’s going to be just fine.” He continues some variation of this narrative until March 11. Two days later, he abruptly declares a “national emergency.” (4)
- Jan. 23: Chinese officials take the drastic step of shutting down Wuhan.
- Jan. 24: Trump tweets, “It will all work out well.” (4)
- Jan. 27: Concerned White House aides meet with then-acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to get senior officials to pay more attention to the issue. Joe Grogan, the head of the White House Domestic Policy Council, argues it could cost Trump his reelection and says the virus is likely to dominate life in the United States for many months.
- Jan. 29: A memo from Peter Navarro warns of 500,000 or more American deaths and says it is “unlikely the introduction of the coronavirus into the U.S. population in significant numbers will mimic a ‘seasonal flu’ event with relatively low contagion and mortality rates.”
- Jan 29: The White House forms a coronavirus response task force, initially led by HHS Secretary Azar.
- Jan. 30: WHO declares a global health emergency, as China expanded the lockdown beyond Wuhan to the entire province of Hubei. That day, Trump says: “We only have five people. Hopefully, everything’s going to be great.”
- Jan. 30: Trump blocks travel from China after three major airlines announce they had halted flights. But it was too little, too late; and worse, it convinces him he’d done everything necessary. In the coming months Trump repeatedly cites this as early decisive action.
- “I do think we were very early, but I also think that we were very smart, because we stopped China,” he says on March 31, adding “That was probably the biggest decision we made so far.”
- But on April 4, the New York Times reported that 430,000 people had entered the United States from China since the coronavirus surfaced, with 1,300 direct flights to 17 cities before the travel restrictions and 40,000 entering after it. In addition, there are thousands of other flights from Italy and Spain, both especially hard hit, ABC News reports on April 7; and on April 8, the New York Times reports that the coronavirus began circulating in the New York area by mid-February, with the majority of cases coming from European strains of the virus.
- Jan. 30: Trump says of the threat: “We think it’s going to have a very good ending for it. So that I can assure you.” (4)
- Feb. 2: Trump tells Fox News host Sean Hannity, “We pretty much shut it down coming in from China.” (4)
- Feb. 4: Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantines in Yokohama, Japan. It has more than 2,600 guests and over 1,000 crew. Within two days, over 40 people test positive for COVID-19, including eight Americans.
- Feb. 5: Trump’s impeachment trial ends with his acquittal by the Republican-controlled Senate.
- Feb. 5: CDC begins shipment of test kits to the states.
- Feb. 7: Donald Trump and Xi Jinping speak about the coronavirus, with Trump praising China’s efforts and pledging support. The same day, Li Wenliang, the whistleblowing doctor admonished for “making false statements on the internet,” dies from the coronavirus.
- Feb. 7 (approximately): By early February, the “majority of the intelligence reporting” in daily DNI and CIA briefings and digests are about the coronavirus, according to the Washington Post.
- Feb. 10: Trump submits a 2020 budget calling for CDC cuts of about 16%, similar to sharp cuts in past Trump budgets, along with deep cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, totaling $2.24 trillion over 10 years, violating his campaign pledge not to cut Medicare or Medicaid. (2)
- Feb. 10: Trump says, “I think the virus is going to be — it’s going to be fine.” (4)
- Feb. 11: WHO names the new disease COVID-19.
- Feb. 12: The CDC admits that its test kits were flawed and will have to be replaced.
- Feb. 19: Trump says: “I think it’s going to work out fine. I think when we get into April, in the warmer weather, that has a very negative effect on that and that type of a virus. So let’s see what happens, but I think it’s going to work out fine.” (4)
- Feb. 20: WHO reports nearly 77,000 cases worldwide in 27 countries.
- Feb. 23: Another Navarro memo warns of an “increasing probability of a full-blown COVID-19 pandemic that could infect as many as 100 million Americans, with a loss of life of as many as 1-2 million souls.”
- Feb. 23: Italy begins to see evidence of a major outbreak in the Lombardy region.
- Feb. 24: As Iran becomes a hot spot, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warns of a possible pandemic. “There is a lot of speculation about whether this increase means that this epidemic has now become a pandemic,” he says.
- Feb. 24: The stock market plummets as the Dow Jones industrial average falls more than 1,000 points.
- Feb. 24: Trump tweets: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. … Stock Market starting to look very good to me!” (4)
- Feb. 26: The first case emerges in California with no clear source, an example of community spread indicating that containment has failed.
- Feb. 26: Trump says, “When you have 15 people — and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero — that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” (4) There is zero evidence to support his wishful thinking.
- Feb. 27: Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina who has received briefings on the threat, tells a private luncheon that the coronavirus is “much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history” and is “is probably more akin to the 1918 [influenza] pandemic,” in which 50 million or more people died worldwide.
- Feb. 28: Cases rise across Europe, including Italy, Germany, France, England, Switzerland and Belarus.
- Feb. 28: Trump says: “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” (4) He also accuses Democrats of “politicizing the coronavirus,” saying, “this is their new hoax.” (5)
- Feb. 29: The Food and Drug Administration eases guidelines to speed the broader use of testing.
- Feb. 29: The United States records its first coronavirus death and announces new travel restrictions for Iran, Italy and South Korea.
- March 3: The CDC lifts restrictions on coronavirus testing, allowing states and private companies to produce their own.
- March 4: The House of Representatives passes a $8.3 billion emergency bill, aimed mainly at the immediate health response to the virus.
- March 4: Trump tries to blame testing failures on Obama: “The Obama administration made a decision on testing that turned out to be very detrimental to what we’re doing. And we undid that decision a few days ago so that the testing can take place in a much more accurate and rapid fashion.” But experts contacted by Factcheck.org say that no such decision or rule existed. (5)
- March 6: Grand Princess cruise ship with more than 2,000 passengers waits to dock off the California coast.
- March 6: Trump assures Americans, “Anybody that wants a test can get a test. That’s what the bottom line is.” Politifact rates it a “Pants on Fire” lie. (4)
- March 6: Trump calls Washington Gov. Jay Inslee “a snake” after Inslee tweets that he told Vice President Mike Pence “our work would be more successful if the Trump administration stuck to the science and told the truth.”
- March 10: Trump says: “Just stay calm. It will go away.” (4)
- March 11: The White House suspends travel from most European countries, as the WHO declares a global pandemic.
- March 11: Trump says, “I think we’re going to get through it very well.” (4)
- March 13: Trump declares a national emergency.
- March 13: Trump refuses to accept any responsibility for the slow rate of coronavirus testing in the United States, blaming Obama once again: “No, I don’t take responsibility at all. Because we were given a — a set of circumstances, and we were given rules, regulations and specifications from a different time.” However, the Obama administration tested 1 million people for H1N1 in the first month after the first diagnosed case, compared to less than 10,000 tested when Trump spoke, more than 50 days after the first case. (5)
- March 15: Trump says, “This is a very contagious—this is a very contagious virus. It’s incredible. But it’s something that we have tremendous control of.”
- March 16: Trump for the first time publicly reflects on the gravity of the situation. Asked about his repeated comments saying the situation was “under control,” he says: “If you’re talking about the virus, no, that’s not under control for any place in the world. [False: See New Zealand & Taiwan] … I was talking about what we’re doing is under control, [Also false, obviously] but I’m not talking about the virus.” (5)
- Mar. 16: Trump tells governors they’re on their own in a conference call: “Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment—try getting it yourselves.” Afterwards Trump tweets: “Just had a very good tele-conference with Nations’s Governors. Went very well. Cuomo of New York has to ‘do more’.”
- March 17: Trump says for the next two weeks, “We’re asking everyone to work at home, if possible, postpone unnecessary travel and limit social gatherings to no more than 10 people.”
- Mar. 17: Trump tweets, “Failing Michigan Governor must work harder and be much more proactive,” after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appeared on MSNBC and accurately says, “The federal government did not take this seriously early enough and now it is on us to make sure we’re doing everything we can based on the best facts and science available.”
- March 18: Trump says he considers himself “a wartime president.” He tells reporters, “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” (5)
- March 19: The Senate unveils a $1 trillion-plus economic stimulus package. California Gov. Gavin Newsom orders lockdown for 40 million residents.
- March 20: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo orders all non-essential businesses to keep their workers home. Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, Illinois and many other states issue similar restrictions.
- March 24: Having tweeted on the economic shutdown that “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” Trump says in a Fox News town hall he would “love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter.”
- March 27: Trump signs a $2.2 trillion emergency spending bill.
- March 29: Trump reverses course on relaxing strict stay-at-home guidance by Easter and extends the period to the end of April.
- March 30: Cases top 163,000. The number of tests crossed the 1 million mark, still far behind what’s needed.
- March 31: Trump asks Americans to be prepared for the “hard days that lie ahead.”
- April 4: Trump attacks Obama for his own testing failure with a new lie: “The ones that we inherited, they were broken, they were obsolete, they were not good tests. But that’s what we got stuck with. We’ve developed some incredible tests.” But there were no inherited tests, since Covid-19 didn’t exist until almost three years after Obama left office. It was Trump’s own administration that turned down World Health Organization tests, developed its own faulty ones, then dragged its heels in allowing others to develop their own tests. (5)
- April 7: Covid-19 deaths pass 10,000, with 10,680 recorded, out of 361,331 cases.
- April 12: Trump retweets a call to fire Anthony Fauci after Fauci says earlier measures “could have saved lives.”
Easter arrives and most of the country is still on lockdown and most churches are either closed for services or go to virtual ones.