By all measures, the United States of America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been an unmitigated disaster. As of May 21, there are 1,577,758 known cases of COVID-19 resulting in 94,729 known deaths, which is 6-percent of U.S. cases. While the U.S. is 4.31-percent of the world’s population, the country is 28-percent of the known worldwide deaths. Lockdown delays cost at least 36-thousand lives, according to Columbia University.
At the center of this dystopian nightmare is Dr. Deborah Birx. She’s the coordinator of the President’s coronavirus task force. She can be seen prominently standing by President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence’s side, giving their outlandish views and sluggish response a patina of credibility.
What most people don’t know, is that the same month that Dr. Birx was appointed to lead our nation’s response to COVID-19, she was severely criticized in a February 2020 Department of State Inspector General report. The report condemned Birx for her role as Coordinator of the United States Government Activities to Combat HIV/AIDS. The IG verdict says that her leadership style led to “poor communication”, “low morale” and a “lack of collaboration and trust.” The report, by now former Inspector General Steve Linick, was an indictment of Birx’s management and foreshadowed the Trump administration’s disastrous COVID-19 response.
The blistering Inspector General report forewarned us of Birx’s questionable leadership and foretold of the failed U.S. effort to curtail the spread of the coronavirus. Had the Trump Administration done their homework and reviewed the IG report, they may have considered an alternative to lead the coronavirus task force. The dismal results in the U.S. were avoidable, had the government rapidly responded, chosen better leadership and embraced science over fiction.”
According to the IG report:
• Office of the Inspector General determined that the lack of consensus on PEPFAR performance targets was due, at least in part, to the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and Health Diplomacy leadership not effectively applying Department leadership and management principles. Specifically, in these instances, her leadership did not effectively work with its PEPFAR stakeholders to seek a consensus and a unified effort on the establishment of PEPFAR performance targets. In addition, Birx’s leadership did not effectively encourage an atmosphere of open dialogue and trust. Of 68 statements regarding Birx’s leadership, 49 (72 percent) were negative. Eight of these statements variously described Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and Health Diplomacy leadership as “dictatorial,” “directive,” and “autocratic.”
• The effect of this condition is low employee morale among PEPFAR country team members. In addition, as PEPFAR country team members stated, it affects the implementation of PEPFAR efforts.
• Because of the lack of meaningful collaboration and trust, as established by the consistently critical statements from the majority of those OIG interviewed on PEPFAR teams across the four missions, OIG concludes that it is prudent for OGAC leadership to take immediate action to address this condition.
The IG report was augmented by employees that were interviewed who claimed Birx’s overbearing leadership style was causing concern and undermining efforts to limit the spread of HIV. Some staff members said that Birx was concentrating power at the expense of the workers, not listening to experts on the ground in participating countries and setting fanciful, unrealistic goals that created the conditions where staff would be tempted to fudge the data. A few of the comments included:
• “It is taking a toll on individuals and agencies. It is worsening. The center of power and decision-making is getting smaller and smaller.”
• “[Targets] are sometimes too high. Because of the pressure of trying to hit the targets, [it] put a lot of pressure on the [implementing] partners. Sometimes, you are not even sure that the numbers are true. Especially when you go to the field and look at the registers. You cannot verify that they are real patients.”
• “I fear that on the quality assurance side, if the message to your partners is, who are mostly local staff, ‘perform on this trajectory, and if you don’t, you’re out’ – that is a recipe for cooking data. The local staff are the interface with clients and their jobs are on the line. You’re incentivizing data cooking.”
My non-profit organization, Truth Wins Out, also interviewed a former employee of Birx, not included in the report, who came to the same conclusion as the IG. The person, who spoke anonymously, said he was deeply concerned that Birx wasted taxpayer money flying hundreds of people, from around the world, to lavish ceremonies to lift her profile at the expense of the greater mission. These trips often included fancy dining and hotel rooms. The effort led to a demoralized staff and high turnover.
“PEPFAR morale is super low and people try to get out as quickly as possible,” said the former staff member. “Her own office (OGAC) is a revolving door. I personally left the government because I couldn’t stand working with her and her minions. Part of it is her abusive, narcissistic and power-tripping behavior.”
The government’s failed response on coronavirus has included a lack of centralized federal coordination, an inadequate effort to protect senior citizens, an absence of tests, respirators and hospital beds, a dearth of protective gear in hospitals for key healthcare workers, sycophancy over science, downplaying Trump’s conspiracy theories, and giving the veneer of scientific cover for state efforts to prematurely open up their economies.
While Trump and Pence are largely to blame, Birx leadership has been suspect. Worse, local and state governments that are opening prematurely are hiding behind her words to justify their dangerous actions.
For example, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis defended the coronavirus website this week by noting that it had drawn praise from Deborah Birx. According to DeSantis,
“Our data is available, our data is transparent, in fact Dr. Birx has talked multiple times about how Florida has the absolute best data.”
But according to CNN, Florida’s has come under scrutiny for the accuracy and transparency of their reporting on Covid-19 cases. Rebekah Jones, the official behind the state’s “dashboard,” a web page showing the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths, said she was removed from the project and questioned the state’s commitment to accessibility and transparency.
In fairness to Dr. Birx, she has a very difficult job. I can’t imagine trying to stem the flow of Trump’s lies and misinformation. It can be easy. Still, she’s at the helm of our nation’s calamitous response.
There is also a fine line between providing the public with accurate science and shilling for an anti-science administration that lies incessantly. It’s a delicate balance, for sure, but Dr. Birx is giving too much cover to the Trump Administration’s historic failures and the tragic loss of life that is happening on the President’s watch. The Inspector General’s report offered strong clues that this would be the result of her leadership.
But it’s clear, by now, that experts and especially Inspector General’s aren’t valued by this odious administration.