Puerto Rico was a harbinger of the botched response to covid-19

In reading this excellent Financial Times piece, I was struck by this paragraph in particular:

People often observed during Trump’s first three years that he had yet to be tested in a true crisis. Covid-19 is way bigger than that. “Trump’s handling of the pandemic at home and abroad has exposed more painfully than anything since he took office the meaning of America First,” says William Burns, who was the most senior US diplomat, and is now head of the Carnegie Endowment.

It struck me as incorrect because I thought almost immediately of the poor federal response to the devastation in Puerto Rico wrought by hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017.  Plenty of news stories at the time (including this one from the year after the storm) focused on Trump throwing paper towels at a crowd of hurricane survivors.  But a closer look at such stories yields many examples of Trump, his administration, and others connected to them operating the same way nearly 3 years ago as they are now in their response to covid-19.

Looking at how the Trump administration talks about death tolls from covid-19 today, I see many similarities to how they talked about death tolls from the hurricanes in 2017. In this US News & World Report story from last month, Trump is quoted saying he’s proud of what his administration has done, as well as insisting the death toll could have been much worse and that no one could have done better. In 2017, the BBC News story I linked earlier recounts Trump telling Puerto Rican government officials that they should be proud of the low reported death tolls from the two storms. This led me to another similarity between the handling of the two crises: under-reported death tolls.

The aftermath of the storms in Puerto Rico is when I first encountered the term “excess mortality”. Researchers from Harvard did a study (including interviews with some 3000 randomly-selected Puerto Rican households the year after the storms) and estimated that some 4600 people died as a result of the damage done by Hurricane Maria due to interruptions in medical care caused by infrastructure damage such as power cuts and impassable roads, and suicides, as compared to the same time period in the previous year. The power cuts led me to yet another similarity between the aftermath of the hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the federal response to covid-19: contracts granted due to political connections instead of competence.

There have been numerous stories (like this one) about GOP fundraiser Mike Gula getting out of the fundraising business to start a company called Blue Flame to sell N95 masks, ventilators, and PPE despite having zero relevant experience. My home state (Maryland) and Trump’s DOJ have both begun investigations into the company after it failed to deliver on contracts it signed. Nearly 3 years ago, a 2-year-old company with 2 employees named Whitefish Energy won a $300 million no-bid contract to restore Puerto Rico’s wrecked power grid. The Interior Department insisted that Secretary Ryan Zinke played no role, despite his personal connections to the CEO of that company. Whitefish would ultimately lose that contract and Secretary Zinke would ultimately resign due to pressure from over a dozen different investigations launched into his conduct while serving as interior secretary.

Another way that Trump’s response to covid-19 was predicted by his response to the hurricanes in Puerto Rico is in how he praised political leaders who played to his ego and blamed those who did not. In this story, Trump is quoted praising then-governor Ricardo Rossello (who had no criticism of federal recovery efforts) while attacking San Juan’s mayor (Carmen Yulin Cruz). His complimentary words to the GOP governors of states (and his attacks on governors Whitmer, Inslee, and others) are very similar.

Further exploration would probably yield more similarities between the botched handling of Puerto Rico’s recovery from the hurricanes and the federal government’s continuing response to covid-19. Sadly, the island is not fully-recovered after 3 years and is now suffering the additional burden of covid-19. Denials of housing assistance by FEMA in the immediate aftermath of the hurricanes is inflicting consequences on Puerto Ricans–all US citizens–to this day.