DANIEL VAUGHAN: A playbook is not the same thing as readiness

One of the classic scenes in the movie Office Space occurs near the beginning when Peter Gibbons sends his TPS report without the right cover sheet. Everyone keeps asking him, “Did you get the memo?” He did, but forgot the cover sheet once.

And then we get the classic scene where his boss, Dom Portwood, comes by and says, “Yeah. It’s just that we’re putting new cover sheets on all the TPS reports before they go out now. So if you could just remember to do that from now on, that’d be great. All right!”

I think of that scene while watching former Obama administration officials run around touting their pandemic “playbook.” They imply that they prepared us for COVID-19 by writing a plan.

Fact-checkers even stepped in to support this claim. They claim Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell lied when he said, “Clearly, the Obama administration did not leave any kind of game plan for something like this.”

Politifact pulled out their “Pants on Fire” rating for that statement because Obama administration officials are holding up their playbook. They then assert the Trump administration had everything they needed to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic.

The height of technocratic arrogance is to go on cable news shows proclaiming a 69-page “playbook” constitutes national readiness for a pandemic. Only a technocrat could look another person in the eyes and, with a straight face, say, Didn’t you read my 69-page memo?

Those 69-pages — not released to the public — don’t include laminated covers or the heavy stock paper used prove super-duper officialness. The playbook does, however, include a title page, a table of contents, and it devotes the last 33 pages to explaining what government agencies are and do with an appendix. The main meat of the document consists of “key questions” you should ask yourself in certain situations, and then get the answer to them.

Didn’t you guys get the memo? 

If I sound mocking here, it’s because I am. That document, which is bureaucratic busywork masquerading as more, is like two kids standing on the other’s shoulders, hiding in a trenchcoat, trying to sneak into an R-rated movie.

When an NFL coach looks at a playbook, he examines the down and distance. He then looks at the plays drawn up for these scenarios against that specific opponent. He doesn’t stand there on the sideline, asking questions like, “How strong are the U.S. government and other bilateral diplomatic relationships?” — which is a real question on page 17 of that playbook.

The Obama administration didn’t create a playbook for a situation like this novel coronavirus. And to the extent America was prepared for a pandemic, we have Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to thank.

In 1998, Bill Clinton read Richard Preston’s novel, The Cobra Event. The book tells a story about a disease running rampant across the country and follows a CDC researcher trying to beat it. After reading it, Clinton began to look for ways to improve the U.S. response to a bioterrorist attack. His first solution was creating a strategic national reserve of essential drugs and medical equipment.

By October of that same year, Clinton had earmarked $51 million for “for pharmaceutical and vaccine stockpiling activities at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” as TIME magazine reported. Clinton later told reporters that germ warfare “keeps me awake at night,” and he was watching real-world events highlight new demands.

What Clinton began, George W. Bush expanded. The threat for Clinton was Y2K. For Bush, the immediate danger was bioterrorism after 9/11 and anthrax scares. But Bush also read a book on the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic and sought to prevent a repeat scenario. 

Avian flu was already making waves at the time. Bush took proactive steps to get ahead of the threat with three goals: “detecting outbreaks, stockpiling vaccines, and having emergency plans in place.” Reports at the time said:

The United States will stockpile vaccines and antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and Relenza (zanamivir), and accelerate the development of new vaccine technologies. Mr. Bush said that the National Institutes of Health was working with leaders of the vaccine industry to replace the use of chicken eggs with a cell culture technology. He also called for liability protection for vaccine makers. … The U.S. will also have emergency plans in place in all 50 states and every local community.

Bush’s avian flu preparation was so thorough that Obama praised him. NPR said that “the Obama administration’s response to the swine flu outbreak is largely based on a playbook that was developed by the Bush administration.”

America’s preparedness capacity had very little to do with a 69-page playbook from the Obama administration, which included concepts from the Ebola outbreak. (Health experts considered the response to Ebola to be a failure, and considerable criticism got placed at the feet of the WHO for that.) America’s preparedness is about what resources we have at the ready.

Indeed, real preparedness is looking for solutions and building on the strong foundations of readiness. A plan without resources is like an expensive canteen without water.

The Bush playbook on H1N1 worked not because they had a playbook, but because they lined up the necessary resources to respond to an outbreak. And even with that readiness, tens of millions of people got the disease. Without Bush’s early preparation, we’d probably be talking today about H1N1 like we do COVID-19. 

Only technocrats believe a report could save America. Sure, it’s better than nothing. But the real question for the Obama administration is harder. After SARS and MERS, why didn’t the Obama administration didn’t take similar steps for the coronavirus like Bush did with the avian flu?

Many East Asian countries did prepare, which is why their response has found success. We weren’t ready for the coronavirus even though we encountered versions of it. We didn’t pursue vaccination and medication efforts for the SARS and MERS coronaviruses, and now we’re playing catch-up.  

A playbook can’t hide those failures. Hopefully, the Trump administration gets that memo and prepares us better in the future.