The Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which raged for over two years and killed more than 10,000 people, was one of the worst epidemics in history. It may seem like a tragic anomaly, but epidemiologists predict outbreaks like these are only going to become more frequent and more severe, largely due to climate change.
It's clear that we need to be prepared for whatever the next outbreak or disaster might be. But it's an area where President Trump has so far been silent, and his record on this subject, has experts concerned.
Trump took much longer than his fellow presidential candidates to comment on the Zika outbreak last year, and when he finally spoke about it, he simply said it was up to Florida governor Rick Scott to deal with it. "You have a great governor who's doing a fantastic job—Rick Scott—on the Zika," he said at the time. "He's letting everyone know exactly what the problem is and how to get rid of it. He's going to have it under control. He probably already does."
During the Ebola crisis, Trump tweeted that US health care workers who became infected shouldn't be allowed to return to the US for treatment.
"If those tweets had been policy, it would have meant American doctors dying," said Jeremy Konyndyk, the former Director of US Foreign Disaster Assistance under President Obama. "That in turn would have meant that the American healthcare workers who deployed in large numbers to West Africa to defeat the disease would not have had the confidence to go."
Over the phone, Konyndyk expressed concerns over the Trump administration's ability to handle a global crisis, be it a disease outbreak, natural disaster, or famine. He stressed that this isn't a matter of politics.
"There's no particular partisan or political reason why Trump and his administration need to be bad at crisis response, they could quite possibly be good at it," Konyndyk said. "The administrations that handle it poorly, the reasons for that don't tend to be political. They tend to be about the competence of the people and the processes they put in place."
Konyndyk pointed to the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina—which was widely considered a failure. The lack of efficient, immediate, and effective response to the 80 percent of New Orleans residents impacted by the flood wasn't due to any kind of political ideology, Konyndyk said, but a problem of process.
"It was just that he put a really bad Federal Emergency Management Agency director in place, and didn't have a good process around how to run that," he told me.
And, not to freak you out, but there are many possible disasters just on the brink. Last month, a spillway for America's tallest dam overflowed, drawing renewed awareness to the possibility of a breach on one of our country's aging dams.
In Iraq, the deteriorating Mosul Dam has many experts worried: they say the collapse of the dam would be "worse than a nuclear bomb." Conflict-driven famine is already plaguing South Sudan and could hit Yemen (both countries Trump recently reinstated a travel ban for) in the next few months. And the World Health Organization has identified ten different diseases that could potentially cause major outbreaks this year, or in the near future.
Just a few months into Trump's administration, there's time still for the president to prove his preparedness for whatever disaster impacts his term, but so far he hasn't shown any interest in this area. Trump's team has considered making billions of dollars worth of cuts to the Coast Guard and FEMA's budgets in order to pay for the construction of a massive southern border wall. Both of these organizations play major roles in disaster response, and cutting their budgets by 14 percent and 11 percent respectively, as proposed by the Office of Management and Budget, could seriously jeopardize our ability to manage a disaster.
Konyndyk said he's also concerned by the administration's general dismissal of scientific evidence, by Trump's alienation of international allies, and by the administration's proposal to cut funding to the United Nations—an organization that was integral to the global response to Ebola.
"If you cut funding to those guys by 40 percent, it's going to be much, much harder to get the rest of the world to respond to a US government call to mobilize," Konyndyk said. "I'm deeply nervous that they don't have the systems in place or the understanding of the tools at their disposal in order to actually manage a response properly."
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