Credit to whatever low-paid research nerd at C-Span who is spending the crisis sitting at home and watching old political clips for coming up with this gem:
President George W. Bush in 2005: "There is no pandemic flu in our country or in the world at this time. But if we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare. And one day many lives could be needlessly lost because we failed to act today." pic.twitter.com/vq0j13DwLL
— CSPAN (@cspan) April 5, 2020
One thing about George W. Bush that was never fully appreciated on this side of the Atlantic, where he was generally assumed to be an idiot who couldn’t string a sentence together, is that he was, genuinely, somebody who thought a lot about the future, and things that were coming at us down the line.
If you’re stuck for something to read during the crisis, his Presidential Memoir, Decision Points, is well worth your time. You may well change your view of him.
Even his biggest errors – Iraq and Afghanistan – were made because he genuinely believed that a world where every country was a democracy would be a peaceful and more secure one. He wasn’t wrong about that, either – he was just wrong to think it was something that could be accomplished, and that everybody secretly wants peace and democracy. They don’t, as it turns out.
But on the pandemic issue, he was perfectly correct. There are some things that we know for certain will happen at some stage, but that we spend hardly any time at all preparing for. For example: It is almost a certainty that at some stage, an asteroid will collide with earth. We’ve all seen movies like Deep Impact and Armageddon, but we assume that they’re just movies, and that nothing like that will happen in real life. But it will, eventually, because it’s happened several times before.
Now, the asteroid event might not happen for several hundred years, or more, but global pandemics? They’re much more regular, in the grand scheme of things. In fact, we had one just as deadly (in fact, more deadly) just over a century ago, with the Spanish flu.
Most of the US Federal Government response to Coronavirus, apparently, can be traced to planning Bush put in place around the time he gave this speech:
In the summer of 2005, President George W. Bush was on vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, when he began flipping through an advance reading copy of a new book about the 1918 flu pandemic. He couldn’t put it down.
When he returned to Washington, he called his top homeland security adviser into the Oval Office and gave her the galley of historian John M. Barry’s “The Great Influenza,” which told the chilling tale of the mysterious plague that “would kill more people than the outbreak of any other disease in human history.”
“You’ve got to read this,” Fran Townsend remembers the president telling her. “He said, ‘Look, this happens every 100 years. We need a national strategy.'”
Thus was born the nation’s most comprehensive pandemic plan — a playbook that included diagrams for a global early warning system, funding to develop new, rapid vaccine technology, and a robust national stockpile of critical supplies, such as face masks and ventilators, Townsend said.
The effort was intense over the ensuing three years, including exercises where cabinet officials gamed out their responses, but it was not sustained. Large swaths of the ambitious plan were either not fully realized or entirely shelved as other priorities and crises took hold.
That last bit, of course, is the tragedy of democracy, which is ironic for a man so committed to spreading democracy around the globe. The truth is, nobody cares about things that are definitely going to happen so long as they’re not going to happen right now.
For example: It’s a dead cert that at some point, western countries are going to face a massive pensions crisis. We’re not having enough children, and our populations are getting older, and they’ve all been promised a pension. At some point, there’ll be so many retired people that the number of people in work just won’t be enough to pay the taxes to fund the pensions of the old. This isn’t speculation – it’s a demographic certainty.
And yet, what happened when the Irish Government tried to mitigate that by raising the pension age, something that we’d all previously agreed to? War. War happened, and it probably cost them the election.
We’re short-term thinkers, by nature. Few of us – except maybe the Greens – ever give any thought to what the country will look like in ten years. And even for the Greens, it’s not much more than general thinking – we’ll either be a desert wasteland full of burning trees, or an eco-paradise where everybody eats salad.
But Bush read a book in the summer of 2005, saw a very big potential problem coming down the tracks, and tried to do something about it.
It’s a pity he wasn’t able to do more. And there’s a lesson there for all of us: When this is over, we should really start talking about what we do about the asteroid, and about pensions, and about other problems that are coming, but we’re not sure when.