The 74-year old Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is widely considered to be the world’s premier public health agency. Its illustrious reputation notwithstanding, the CDC made mistakes early in testing, and it also failed to provide accurate counts of the numbers of infections and deaths caused by the coronavirus.
In addition, given its culture of being careful and cautious, the CDC did not move quickly enough to ascertain what lessons from other nations could be learned and meaningfully applied in the US.
Finally, its messaging was occasionally confusing, leading to mistrust. The agency repeatedly clashed with President Donald Trump, who seems to believe the CDC is a part of the deep state whose actions are designed to ensure his failure.
Trump Is Thwarting the CDC
President Trump has claimed that the COVID-19 pandemic will simply disappear, but the reality belies this optimism. We routinely see top scientists such as the CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield appear with President Trump. As Trump opines about the virus, Redfield seems to provide a scientific seal of approval to Trump’s usually misguided banter.
These presidential machinations do not hide a central fact: President Trump is hamstringing the CDC, and its vast scientific knowledge-base is being put to little practical use.
In May, the CDC was forced to scale back its guidance concerning the opening of locked-down schools and businesses after the White House criticized this guidance for being too prescriptive.
More alarmingly, last month, the Trump administration ordered hospitals to bypass the CDC and send all COVID-19 patient information to a central database in Washington. This move has concerned health experts who rightly worry that the data will be politicized or withheld from the public.
As the president promotes politics over science, the real losers are the American people.
Proposal for Change
To ensure that science is not politicized and that CDC scientists can fulfill their public health mission without fearing retribution from or constantly being undercut by the Trump administration, the CDC must be an independent agency like the Federal Reserve (Fed) is.
Like the CDC, the Fed is filled with experts whose job is to make monetary policy decisions on their own, keeping the best interests of the American people and not any particular president in mind.
Because of the Fed’s independence, its 7-member board of governors and 12-member open market committee can make the best possible decisions for the nation, even if such choices disappoint a president.
The Fed’s independence is now so well established that the Fed Chairman Jerome Powell can act as he sees fit even though President Trump has repeatedly criticized him for apparently having no guts, sense, or vision.
As I predicted, Jay Powell and the Federal Reserve have allowed the Dollar to get so strong, especially relative to ALL other currencies, that our manufacturers are being negatively affected. Fed Rate too high. They are their own worst enemies, they don’t have a clue. Pathetic!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 1, 2019
The Fed played a key role in resuscitating the US economy in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. It did so by cutting interest rates, providing forward guidance about interest rates, and engaging in quantitative easing. If the Fed were not an independent entity, it would have been very difficult for it to act the way it did in 2008. Some observers even argued that the Fed’s 2008 actions might not have happened without its independent authority.
We are now confronted with a trinity of scary details. First, more than 158,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. Second, we are the worst-performing rich nation when it comes to managing the virus. Finally, the science averse President Trump appears to care little about the raging pandemic.
In this situation, it is essential to remember that the CDC’s public health competence stems from the fact that it is filled with competent scientists interested in doing their jobs to the best of their abilities.
Giving the CDC independence of the sort that the Fed presently has is not a panacea for managing the COVID-19 outbreak. However, granting this independence makes it a lot more likely that scientists will be taken seriously and that they will drive the public health response to the coronavirus crisis rather than ignorant politicians.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.