A SovereignPH.com EXCLUSIVE
A survey of Covid-19 implications from an international perspective
by Adolfo Quizon Paglinawan
Bush Jr’s prognosis about pandemics
Looking for an opening to put a human touch to this work, I thought if there could be one, it would be my personal experience with the Bush family.
Ronald Reagan’s term ended January 20, 1989, twenty-eight months after his administration gifted Philippine President Corazon Aquino with 800 million dollars for the reconstruction of the Philippine economy that neo-conservatives in his power circle under George Schultz and Paul Wolfovitch started crushing one year after he took office in 1981.
That “honorarium” for a speech Mrs. Aquino delivered before the joint session of the US congress in September 1986, would serve under Reagan’s successor George Herbert Walker Bush (Sr.) as seed money to lead a Multilateral Aid Initiative involving seventeen countries and two multinational funding organizations.
I was working at the Philippine Embassy in Washington DC since 1986, so I witnessed how between Reagan and Bush Sr., the foundation of a Philippine recovery took shape. The collaboration between my boss Ambassador Emmanuel Pelaez and the US president’s personal representative Elliot Richardson would be the linchpin for that mission.
George Sr. never hid his affinity for Filipinos that started in November 1944 when as the youngest Navy aviator during his time, he saw action in the Pacific – flying missions to support American combat operations in the Philippines during World War II.
His wife Barbara was equally affable, often “bragging” among Filipinos that her husband’s favorite dish was “chicharon” which she called deep-fried pork rinds.
The former president appointed Filipino-American Dr. Connie Mariano to join the White House Medical Unit, and eventually the first Filipino-American to reach the rank of Rear Admiral in the US Navy. He also revisited the Philippines as Reagan’s vice-president, taking pride in wearing the barong, the Filipino traditional garment for men.
My close encounters with the man were not behind the highly secured fences of the White House. Occasionally, George and Barbara, would sneak into the Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling recreation grounds to join Filipino-American potlucks. Even when he was president, the couple would find the slightest excuse to join boodle fights and try eating with their hands or insist queuing for buffets and be available to everyone in a relaxed setting.
In one of those moments, he shared with me that one of the saddest time of his life was when the Philippine senate voted down the extension of the RP-US Bases Agreement during his term as president of all times. But knowing the man up close, he would never put his politics over people-to-people relations as his advocacy had always been for a “gentle society.”
George Sr. secretly sponsored Timothy, a seven-year old Filipino child for 10 years, under the pen name “George Walker” through Compassion International, a nonprofit organization that uses local churches to help children in poor communities around the world.
The last two years of his life, he would be under the care of a Filipina nurse named Julie Arsenio. As Barbara said, “That was his personal choice.”
His son George Walker Bush (Jr.) would inherit his father’s affection for Filipinos.
On the recommendation of his wife and first lady Laura, George Jr. made history when he appointed Cristeta Pasia Comerford on August 2005 as the first woman White House executive chef and the first person of ethnic minority origin to hold the position. When George Bush Jr. went to the Philippines three year after as the sixth US president to visit the country, he boasted to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in the full hearing of media, that a Filipino-American was on top of his daily culinary menu.
A visionary’s prescience
Some may not like their politics but many attest to the kindness of the Bush family.
President George W. Bush was on vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas in the summer of 2005 when the monograph of John M. Barry’s “The Great Influenza,” got stuck in his hands. Reading the revisit of the Spanish Flu of 1918, he felt it was frightening but moving narrative of a pandemic that killed the most number of humans beings in the history of mankind.
World War I claimed 16 million fatalities but that influenza decimated 50 million people after infecting one third of the world’s population then.
Returning to Washington DC, he summoned his top homeland security adviser into the Oval Office and gave her the book.
“You’ve got to read this,” Fran Townsend remembers the president telling her. “This happens every 100 years. We need a national strategy.”
(The United States posted 675,000 deaths. An isolated archipelago in the Far East, the Philippines tolled 80,000 or about 1% of its 10 million population brought about transmitted mainly by infected US army personnel most of whom came from Kansas City, Missouri.)
So on November 1, 2005 speaking before the National Institute of Health, Bush laid out proposals in “granular detail” — describing with stunning prescience how a pandemic in the United States could unfold. Among those in the audience was Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leader of the current crisis response, who was then and still is now, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“A pandemic is a lot like a forest fire,” Bush said at the time. “If caught early it might be extinguished with limited damage. If allowed to smolder, undetected, it can grow to an inferno that can spread quickly beyond our ability to control it.”
I am reprinting verbatim ABC’s edited tape of that historical speech by George W. Bush:
“To the health and safety of all Americans, I am here to discuss our strategy to prevent and protect our people from possible outbreak.
“Science and doctors cannot tell us when and where the next pandemic will strike or how severe it will be. But most agree that at some point, we are likely to face another pandemic.
“The virus has developed some characteristics needed to cause a pandemic.
“It has demonstrated the ability to infect human beings, and it has produced fatal illness in humans.
“If the virus were to develop the capacity for sustained human to human transmission, it could spread quickly across the globe.
“The country has been given fair warning of this danger to our homeland and time to prepare.
“Our strategy is designed to meet three credible goals.
“First we must attack outbreaks that occur anywhere in the world.
“Next, we must protect the American people by stockpiling vaccines and anti-viral drugs, and improve our ability to rapidly produce new vaccines to prevent a new pandemic strike.
“Third we must be prepared to respond at state, federal and local levels, in the event a pandemic reaches our shores.
“But unlike storms or floods, which strike in an instance and recede, a pandemic can spread destruction in repeated ways that can last a year or more.
“To respond to a pandemic, we need medical personnel, adequate supplies and equipment. In a pandemic, everything from syringes to hospital beds, respirators, masks and protective equipment would be in short supply.
“To respond to a pandemic, the American people need the information to protect themselves and others.
“In a pandemic, an infection carried by one person can be transmitted to many other people. So every American must take personal responsibility for stopping the spread of the virus.
“By making critical investments today will strengthen our ability to safeguard the American people in an awful event of a devastating pandemic. At the same time, we bring our nation’s medical and public health infrastructure more squarely in the 21st century.
“Leaders in every level of government have the responsibility to confront dangers before they appear and engage the American people in the best course of action.
“There is no pandemic flu in our country or in the world at this point, but if we wait for a pandemic to appear then it will be too late to prepare. One day many lives will be lost because we failed to act today.”
Townsend said, “Thus was born the nation’s most comprehensive pandemic plan — a playbook that included diagrams for a global early warning system, funding to develop new, rapid vaccine technology, and a robust national stockpile of critical supplies, such as face masks and ventilators.
The effort was intense over the ensuing three years, including exercises where cabinet officials gamed out their responses, but it was not sustained. Large swaths of the ambitious plan were either not fully realized or entirely shelved as other priorities and crises took hold, the ABC report continued.
But “despite politics, despite changes, when a crisis hits, you pull what you’ve got off the shelf and work from there,” Townsend said.
When Bush first told his aides he wanted to focus on the potential of a global pandemic, many of them harbored doubts.
“My reaction was — I’m buried. I’m dealing with counterterrorism. Hurricanes, wildfires. I’m like, ‘What?'” Townsend said. “He said to me, ‘It may not happen on our watch, but the nation needs the plan.'”
Over the ensuing months, his Cabinet officials got behind the idea. Most of them had governed through the September 11 terror attacks, so events considered unlikely but highly-impactful had a certain resonance.
“There was a realization that it’s no longer fantastical to raise scenarios about planes falling from the sky, or anthrax arriving in the mail,” said Tom Bossert, who worked in the Bush White House and went on to serve as a homeland security adviser in the Trump administration. “It was not a novel. It was the world we were living.”
According to Bossert, who is now an ABC News contributor, Bush was obsessed about preparing for a pandemic. “He was completely taken by the reality that was going to happen.”
Bush asked the US Congress for $7 billion building out his plan. His administration was passionately serious about the president’s prognosis. The government website that was launched, “www.pandemicflu.gov” is still active to this day.
But as time passed, it became increasingly difficult to justify the continued funding, staffing and attention, Bossert said.
“You need to have annual budget commitment. You need to have institutions that can survive any one administration. And you need to have leadership experience,” he said. “All three of those can be effected by our wonderful and unique form of government in which you transfer power every four years.”
The former president politely declined to comment on the ongoing crisis but his speech fifteen years ago will continue to haunt the federal government as it responds to the current pandemic.
This is why I cannot fathom why Americans are bitching they were not informed early enough by another country to respond adequately to an unseen enemy.
How can the United States appear to have been ambushed of sorts when it had 15 long years advance notice of a pandemic, from a visionary, its own former president at that?
(To be continued)
Ado Paglinawan is a daily commentator at Radyo Pilipinas1, and a regular columnist at the newest daily news website SovereignPH.com and its partner magazine The Sovereign. He is a former Philippine diplomat, serving in the Philippine Embassy in Washington DC and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York as press attaché, spokesman and special assistant to Ambassador Emmanuel N. Pelaez. He has served a strategic consultant to Agriculture Secretary Luisito Lorenzo, Tourism Secretary Richard Gordon and Finance Secretary Roberto de Ocampo. He studied for 1 5 years at San Beda College from grade 1 to 4th year college majoring in English and Philosophy, minor in political science and history. He is a veteran of the First Quarter Storm, participating as president of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines. Ado has taken continuing studies in world politics and diplomacy, international public relations, information technology and remote sensing, and Eastern Christianity and Islamic studies, from various universities in Washington DC.