Margaret Brennan’s interview of former White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx for the Sunday morning show “Face the Nation” was a master class in how government should function and why it often doesn’t. Americans should take the class lesson seriously.
Birx is one of the best infectious disease-control experts in the world and is now at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
She may only have been attempting to change the narrative. However, even if that were her motivation, Birx described how although she worked at the top of the U.S. government she was ineffective in protecting Americans from a deadly disease.
Many Americans have come to believe former President Ronald Reagan’s assertion that government isn’t the solution to their problems. “Government is the problem,” he said.
Over 400,000 COVID-19 deaths might seem to validate that belief. However, Birx’s experiences show how government solutions may actually be derailed by bad political practices.
An effective government response to a pandemic, Birx told Brennan, requires a single, focused message driven by civil servants who have scientific expertise and are not constrained by political motives.
“When you have a pandemic, you are relying on every American to change their behavior,” she said. “Communication is absolutely key. And so every time a statement was made by a political leader that wasn’t consistent with public health needs, that derailed our response.”
Rather than a single line of communication flowing to leaders willing to prioritize public health, Birx described a White House rife with parallel lines of communication filled with false information that came from nonscientific sources, the equivalent of “a guy I know.”
Birx described government leaders at the federal and state levels ignoring those who knew the facts about COVID-19.
Those who know facts are usually civil servants. These men and women work in highly bureaucratic institutions and are protected from recrimination if they speak truth to power. Before taking the White House job, Birx was a civil servant. After taking the White House job, her ability to speak out was limited, she said.
Bureaucracies move slowly, ponderously, often frustratingly. But they and the civil servants who work in them stay the course in a crisis rather than swaying with the political winds.
The public must demand information from civil servants rather than relying too heavily on those beholden only to politicians. Expertise and stability come along with bureaucratic delays.
Government can be the solution, if Americans demand it.
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