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EDITORIAL

The White House wings it on coronavirus response

Epidemics can be challenging even for level-headed, well-prepared governments. The coronavirus lays bare just how clumsy the Trump administration is when it comes to public health.

President Trump (center), with members of the president's coronavirus task force, spoke during a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Wednesday.
President Trump (center), with members of the president's coronavirus task force, spoke during a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Wednesday.Evan Vucci/Associated Press

Now that health officials are warning Americans to prepare for the spread of a coronavirus, we’re getting a powerful reminder of why the chaotic Trump White House is dangerous. The president’s dismissal of scientific facts and his gutting of critical agencies have put lives at risk.

Invisible pathogens like the coronavirus, which is easily transmitted and appears to kill 2 percent of those infected (compared with the 0.1 percent US death rate for influenza), are challenging even for well-prepared administrations. Because people and goods move around the globe rapidly, it’s tricky to devise quarantines and other containment strategies. That’s why competent governments treat pandemic preparedness as a matter of national security, invest sufficiently in prevention, and speak forthrightly to the public.

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Trump has fallen down on those fronts and long ago corroded the trust that is vital in a crisis.

His administration weakened the foundation for pandemic response in 2018, when it disbanded the National Security Council team that coordinated global health security. Then it allowed budget cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which forced a retreat from pandemic-prevention efforts in China and elsewhere. That same year, the administration shifted control of the Strategic National Stockpile, a storehouse of medicines and medical supplies, away from the CDC. Public-health experts worry that was another unforced error, because the CDC works directly with local health departments that put the stockpile into use.

Even this winter, with coronavirus already ravaging China, Trump proposed a 2021 budget that would slash spending at the CDC and other agencies that underpin the nation’s scientific prowess.

But of course, Trump is allergic to scientific advice. That explains why he would appoint Vice President Mike Pence as the new head of the coronavirus response, replacing the health and human services secretary whom Trump had put in that role just a few weeks ago. Pence’s ability to use evidence to guide public health decisions is worrisome at best. He insisted in 2000 that smoking isn’t deadly because — voila! — most smokers don’t get lung cancer. As Indiana governor, he engineered health-funding cuts that caused an HIV outbreak.

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On Tuesday, a CDC official, Nancy Messonnier, said Americans should expect the virus to spread here. “We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad,” she added. Scott Gottlieb, who was Trump’s first director of the Food and Drug Administration, tweeted more straight talk: “This could be a long fight that will require shared sacrifice.”

Contrast such comments with Trump’s bluster when he complained about cable news coverage and said that the risk to Americans “remains very low.” As Ronald Klain, who oversaw the Ebola response in the Obama administration, pointed out, Trump’s confidence was unwarranted because very few Americans have been tested for the coronavirus. We might have many more cases than we think.

Meanwhile, a whistle-blower now alleges that administration officials retaliated against her after she alerted them that federal health workers lacked proper safety equipment and training when they interacted with virus patients quarantined at military bases in California.

These are more sad reminders of the reasons we can’t believe what we hear from this White House. Americans should heed the CDC and be prepared.

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Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.