Why competent governance is actually pretty important when a complex crisis hits. An important thread by Jeremy Konyndyk on the failure by the Trump Administration to stop the community spread of the Coronavirus.

First published in March 2020.

Now it seems highly likely that there has been undetected community transmission ongoing in parts of the upper West Coast of the United States for weeks, at least. How did we end up with a major surveillance failure on par with Italy and Iran?

Let’s talk about how that happens.

This may get spun as a technical failure (e.g. flaws in the test kits). It is not. It is an interconnected communications, strategy, process, and execution failure, reflecting a serious breakdown of crisis management.

Direct line from that failure to sick people in a nursing home.

Recall how, in the run-up to the Iraq war, the White House signaled its preferred policy outcome so heavily that it skewed the analysis and advice it received. We can see similar alignment between the preferences Trump and his team were signaling, and the strategic posture of his crisis managers.

Trump wanted to calm the markets, avoid threats to his re-election, and keep the disease out of the country.

Twitter - @readDonaldTrump

He and his team made those preferences very clear. And got angry at those who deviated.

(The Washington Post has an infuriating tick-tock on all this out)

Washington Post


That inevitably colored – both overtly and subtly – the strategic emphasis of the crisis task force. They operated from presumptions that containment was possible, the risk to the US was low, and transmission was not happening here yet.

Repeated those things like a mantra.

And those assumptions set the frame for the testing failures.

The key question is not “Why didn’t the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) test kits work?” It is “Why were flawed CDC test kits allowed to bottleneck all US testing capacity when alternatives were available?

The United States badly bungled coronavirus testing — but things may soon improve. / Science Mag

And to be clear, alternatives were available. China has managed to test hundreds of thousands. The World Health Organization (WHO) has sent working test kits to 50+ countries. South Korea is doing drive-through testing clinics, for goodness’ sake.

South Korea Tests for Coronavirus at Drive-through Clinics. / VOA News

And to be equally clear, experts outside the administration – including Trump’s former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner – have been clamoring for weeks about the need to ramp up testing.

He and Luciano Borio wrote this nearly a month ago:

Stop a U.S. Coronavirus Outbreak Before It Starts. / Wall Street Journal

Adding to the debacle, the bottlenecks on test kits meant that the CDC kept the case definition artificially narrow – tied to China – even as cases were expanding globally (and, we now realize, domestically as well).


The result of that definition, as Epidemiology and global health security policy Jennifer Nuzzo and others have eloquently argued, was that we were blind to community spread – because the CDC had defined suspect cases so narrowly as to exclude that possibility.

Can’t see them, so can’t test them. So blind to what’s happening.

Now, why would policymakers let that happen? Well, if you assume that community transmission is ongoing (as most experts outside the US Government did), then this looks like a real problem. But if you assume it is not happening, as the Task Force did, this all looks much less urgent.

Seeing some folks in the mentions saying COVER-UP!! and LIES!!, etc.

To be abundantly clear – I don’t think that’s the case. I think this was an honest but avoidable mistake, driven by groupthink, unexamined assumptions, and process failure.

So, by the logic of the assumptions the Task Force was making, and signalling to the public, the US Government’s posture seemed rational. If you think the biggest present danger is introduction of cases from overseas, you focus on that. And so they did.

The core emphasis of policy was on keeping it out – travel controls, screening, traveler quarantine. And finite testing capacity was targeted at that. Those assumptions and signals reflected the President’s clear preference, and the process’ failure to question it.

And sadly, as a result of those assumptions, they squandered the weeks of delayed spread that the travel controls may have bought us. Because rather than scale up surveillance and prepare the health system for community spread, all emphasis went into containment.

The core of policy became a self-licking ice cream cone: we’re not seeing community spread yet so we don’t need to aggressively test for it, and anyone who is saying we do is being alarmist. The situation is under control; the risk to the public is low.

And that mentality also means there is less urgency to solve the testing bottlenecks – because there is no sign of community spread. So rather than trigger Plan B (development of tests by private labs), as they finally did last Friday, you stick to Plan A (wait to fix the CDC test).

That is a strategic process failure.

A good crisis management process doesn’t put all its eggs in one strategic basket – it looks for vulnerabilities in strategy, red-teams those, and either falsifies or addresses them. That doesn’t seem to have happened.

What this looks like: during the Ebola response, Obama’s Ebola Czar Ronald Klain drove us crazy (I saw this with love, Ron) with requests for plans to deal with X, Y, Z contingencies. I remember spending a weekend working a briefing paper on what we would do if all air travel to West Africa were shut down.

My team thought that very unlikely, and so it drove us slightly nuts at the time (again, Ron, love). But I have come to appreciate it, because it achieved two things: it forced the agencies to recheck our assumptions, and meant the White House could be sure we were doing so.

That kind of check-your-math mentality doesn’t seem to be present in the current management of the US response. So, it is not just on the CDC or the FDA for failing to resolve the testing bottleneck. It is also on a White House that failed to recognize that as a mission critical problem.

It is that sequence of interlinked optics, messaging preferences, strategic assumptions, and execution breakdowns that leaves the US Government with a blind spot this big. And that, in turn, is how ongoing transmission in the US can be missed even as the government assures us it is not happening.

And all that is why competent governance is actually pretty important.

Tweets posted on 1 March 2020 by @JeremyKonyndyk.

[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 3 March 2020 with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Flickr/The White House/Shealah Craighead. - President Donald Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence, delivers remarks at a Coronavirus Task Force update. | 29 Feb 2020. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)