It’s damn good that Dr. Anthony Fauci did an interview on the coronavirus threat with Mark Masselli on Feb. 20, on the podcast of Community Health Center Inc.
Fauci, like Masselli, who founded CHC in Middletown in 1972, gets right to the point. And Fauci’s voice matters just a little bit when it comes to epidemics.
He’s been head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since, get this, 1984. That means he managed the AIDS crisis under Reagan and was in charge for Zika, MERS, SARS, Ebola and all the rest, at an agency that now has a $5.9 billion budget.
“It really does have the potential to become a global pandemic,” Fauci said on the CHC podcast. “It transmits extremely efficiently among humans. Remember, with SARS back in 2002, there were a total of about 8,000 cases over about a year and a couple of months. Right now, we’re only literally less than two months into this outbreak, and we have about 10 times as many transmissions.”
One week after that podcast, the White House muzzled Fauci, according to reports in the New York Times and other media outlets, though Fauci later denied that on MSNBC.
Either way, public comments on the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis are coming come from the Twitter account of that other world renowned medical expert, the eminent physician Donald J. Trump. Oh, and his sidekick, Mike Pence, the veep who, as a congressman and governor of Indiana, made sure HIV test centers closed in the middle of a crisis because it was more important to punish Planned Parenthood than to save lives.
And the response has been less than smooth, with little except happy talk from Dr. Trump.
What else would we expect from a president who dismantled the nation’s infectious disease defense system in 2018 as part of his war on science, war on readiness and war on anything that former President Barack Obama did? What else would we expect from a president who, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, has left 39 top-level science and technology jobs unfilled after three years, about half the total, compared with just three by George W. Bush and zero by Obama?
Trump’s best effort was to brag about how the United States had only 15 cases generated inside our borders. Almost a miracle, he crowed. We’re doing great! That stock market crash? It’s because investors fear Bernie Sanders. He actually said that, folks.
Let’s take a step back from where this president stands in this crisis.
The deeper issue is that Trump’s leadership style — tribal and charismatic, rather than rational — combined with his transactional world view in which lies don’t matter, make him spectacularly the wrong person to lead the nation in a public health crisis.
“In any kind of a crisis, public health or not,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, the Yale School of Management associate dean and professor who’s an expert on CEO leadership, “you have to rely on trained, stable systems and not ad-hoc forces to rise to the occasion.”
Luck favors the prepared. “It’s not like going to town with a Benny Goodman pickup band that just brings out the horns,” Sonnenfeld said. “These people needed to have been working together. ... Planning, training is what really matters in a crisis.”
Max Weber, the early 20th century German philosopher who’s credited with launching sociology — college frosh are forever in his debt — described three types of leadership: Charismatic, based on the cult of a strong man (and thankfully now, sometimes a strong woman). Traditional, based on tribal customs and the power of legacy, as with monarchs. And legal-rational, based on rules and effective use of the bureaucracy.
We need all three types. Most good leaders embody a combination. Trump is the swaggering strongman, missing the legal-rational trait, the one that relies on sober assessments, deep planning and data; and largely missing tradition. He operates by hub-and-spoke power, Sonnenfeld said, with himself as the hub, always.
“It’s the difference between a trained army vs. a neighborhood posse,” he said. A neighborhood vigilante group can never do what a trained army or a police force can do, so it’s the same in national security or public health.”
That helps us understand what happened Friday, when Fauci was about to deliver a closed briefing to members of Congress. Some Republicans stormed out, Politico reported, after Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, opened the meeting by slamming the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19.
DeLauro, the New Haven Democrat who’s held her job for 29 years, is watching the show up-close as chair of the subcommittee that oversees health spending. She’s talking about stunts like Trump ordering 14 infected Americans onto the evacuation plane with healthy people after they exited a quarantined cruise ship — overruling his own experts — then lying about it.
The list goes on forever.
“Science has been politicized, science denial has been legitimized by an administration that cares more about controlling the message than keeping us safe,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal said in Milford Friday, in comments reported by my colleague Kaitlyn Krasselt. “Diseases don’t care what your politics are.”
The takeaway: Even when Trump makes the right moves and says the right things, his history and leadership style render him morally toothless in a crisis related to science.
For example, Fauci conceded on the Feb. 20 podcast that Trump’s partial travel ban on China appears to have worked, contrary to scientific advice from him and others. To him, it’s a constant quest for the right answers. To Trump, it’s a third-grade boasting fest because he misses what’s obvious to most of us: This is complex stuff.
Fauci, to that point, told Masselli and co-host Margaret Flinter on the Feb. 20 podcast the COVID-19 crisis might be worse than we think, and in some ways, not as bad.
“There are probably many-fold more individuals who are either without symptoms or a minimally symptomatic and are not getting counted,” Fauci said. “The somewhat good news about it is that that...the death rate is very likely not 2 percent but more towards 1 percent or less than 1 percent.”
Fauci or someone like him should be in charge of the public message as well as the strategy. That’s the view of Masselli, whose Community Health Center is now one of the largest health care providers in Connecticut, with clinics all over the state, and operations across the country.
“We need somebody to stand up, who the public believes,” he said. “We need a scientist. We cannot have a politician running as point person.”
Trust, as always, is the key and that’s where leadership culture comes in. It’s no coincidence that Trump’s followers and fellow cult leaders such as Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham are “denying the coronavirus threat in order to protect Trump,” as Business Insider reported.
Maybe Trump is right. Maybe this will all blow over and we will have overreacted. But at some point, a biological Armageddon will strike this planet of 7.8 billion germy humans. When it does, call me crazy but I want the person in charge to hear and speak the truth — not send a neophyte, loyalist head of homeland security up to Congress with falsehoods about mortality rates and vaccines.
The misplay by homeland security chief Chad Wolf prompted Sonnenfeld to wonder, “How is that any better than China?”