Coronavirus could be Donald Trump’s Katrina moment

Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has all the hallmarks of Bush’s disastrous handling of Hurricane Katrina.

Trump coronavirus briefing Reuters
US President Donald Trump participates in a coronavirus briefing with health insurers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, March 10, 2020 [File: Leah Millis/Reuters]

Accusations of sexual assault, the public outcry surrounding the separation of migrant children from their parents, impeachment – it seems that President Donald Trump can weather any controversy. 

That is, until now. Trump’s declaration of a national emergency, so late, shows a president with little idea of how to handle a crisis of epic proportions. 

His administration’s inadequate response to the coronavirus outbreak is painfully clear. Trump himself had taken a seemingly cavalier attitude – stating he was “not concerned” after Brazilian government aide, Fabio Wajngarten reportedly tested positive this week for coronavirus. The US president was seen in a photo with him last weekend.

A government botching an attempt to deal with a crisis? Does this sound familiar? It should – former President George W Bush also made serious mistakes after Hurricane Katrina struck the Mexican Gulf Coast back in 2005. 

What we are seeing unfold now with the Trump administration is shockingly similar, as a toxic mix of partisanship, ineptitude and mismanagement reveal a government failing its people. 

Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the US’s Gulf Coast. It killed more than 1,800 people, displaced about a million and caused $108bn of damage, making it the costliest storm in US history.  

President Bush was on vacation on his ranch when the hurricane hit on August 29. It took him two days to end his trip, yet rather than visiting the people affected, he opted to fly over the affected areas to survey the damage. 

He only set foot in New Orleans about two weeks later. In the meantime, the New Orleans Superdome became an overcrowded refuge to much of the city’s marginalised, African American population. 

The images coming out of New Orleans showed a critical situation as people formed long lines for assistance, waded through water in their flooded communities, and scribbled desperate pleas on their roofs as they prayed for rescue.

Not just the photos, but Kayne West’s statement – that George Bush does not care about black people – will be forever attached to the Katrina disaster.   

Bush’s callous, bumbled response was mirrored by his government’s own mismanagement. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, the agency in charge of coordinating responses, was loaded with Bush loyalists who had little knowledge of crisis management. There was also widespread government fraud and waste in the disaster’s aftermath, costing the US taxpayer more than $2bn. 

As the people in New Orleans and elsewhere suffered, politicians took sides. Republicans in Congress called out New Orleans’s Democrat mayor, while representatives from both parties accused one another of cronyism and corruption in crafting the desperately needed aid package.       

The parallels between Trump’s flawed coronavirus response and Bush’s Katrina debacle are as clear as day.

Has the current administration shown ineptitude in its response?  

It has appointed Mike Pence to head the effort. Given that Pence failed to address a public health crisis in his own state of Indiana when governor, this reveals a serious problem concerning the expertise. 

Meanwhile, Trump has questioned the advice of doctors and the World Health Organization (WHO) as to the scale of the pandemic. To make matters worse, the president’s address to the nation about cutting off travel to Europe raised more questions than answers, contributing to another stock market sell-off on Wall Street.

Who is responsible for the outbreak in the world according to Trump? Apparently, we should point the finger at former President Barack Obama; at least, that is what Trump wants us to believe with an unfounded assertion that the Obama administration meddled with policies about testing for diseases.

Meanwhile, some of the administration’s allies on Fox News have been blaming Democrats for “politicising” the virus. Sean Hannity, the Fox News talk show host, thinks it is a hoax.    

Perhaps news coverage would improve if we knew how many cases there are of COVID-19 in the US. Yet, here also the Trump administration has faltered. We are told that there are simply not enough kits to test people. Questions also surround the capacity of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to meet the demands of this crisis, which will only worsen as Trump plans to cut its budget, a decision the administration continues to stand by.   

President Bush never really recovered after Katrina, at least politically. His approval rating steadily fell after the crisis broke. In 2006, Democrats won majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate.  

Yet, winning or losing elections should not be our primary concern with the coronavirus pandemic. People who cannot stay at home and self-quarantine are particularly at danger. Undocumented workers, people in the “gig” economy, as well as many in the service sector, stand to suffer disproportionately.  

People who live paycheque to paycheque cannot afford any kind of interruption where they work.  

Following Kanye, if Bush did not care about black people, then the nature of Trump’s response indicates his administration’s disdain of working people more generally.    

Trump has managed to swat away many of the problems that he has been confronted with while in office. The events surrounding the coronavirus outbreak seem different, if not for the scale of the problem, but for his administration’s apparent inability to understand the crisis and develop an adequate strategy.

Come November, the question is – will voters choose four more years of this kind of leadership? Maybe Trump can withstand such crises, but for most of us, we simply cannot. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.