Donald Trump has put his vice president, Mike Pence, in charge of addressing the coronavirus outbreak — after Pence, as governor of Indiana, failed miserably in responding to a rash of HIV cases in that state.
Trump announced Wednesday afternoon that Pence would head up the U.S. response, with the president saying Pence has “a certain talent for this” due to his experience in Indiana, CNBC reports.
The virus that has killed nearly 3,000 people worldwide and has been contracted by over 80,000 is a newly identified type of coronavirus, a family of viruses that have spikes around their surface, making them resemble a crown, according to The New York Times. It originated in Wuhan, China, and has infected people in at least 33 countries, causing respiratory illnesses. Most of the deaths have been in China.
From 2011 to 2014, during Pence’s tenure as governor of Indiana, Scott County, a largely rural area in the southern part of the state, saw a spike in HIV diagnoses among injection-drug users, “with a cluster of 215 [transmission] ultimately attributed to the outbreak,” according to Reuters.
By early 2015, public health experts were pleading with Pence to authorize a program that would provide access to clean needles.
Pence, a deeply conservative evangelical Christian, opposed such a program on moral grounds, saying he believed it promoted drug use. In March 2015, he signed an executive order allowing needle exchange, but in Scott County only. That came after he prayed about the matter, The Daily Beast reports.
Pence also opposes condom distribution to fight HIV, and as governor he oversaw the defunding of Planned Parenthood clinics in Indiana. The Planned Parenthood clinic in Scott County, which had the county’s only HIV testing center, closed in 2013 as a result.
Pence has had other problematic responses to the HIV epidemic. In 1996, he criticized the Republican National Convention’s inclusion of AIDS activists as speakers. “An endless line of pro-choice women, AIDS activists and proponents of affirmative action may have struck a chord with the Washington press corps,” he wrote in Indiana Policy Review, a conservative journal. “They bombed, however, in Peoria. Add to that the systematic exclusion from prime time of social conservatives and you have the makings of a real ratings buster.”
Also, in 2000, when he made his first successful run for Congress, his campaign website said the Ryan White Care Act, which provides federal funds to HIV organizations around the country, should be reauthorized “only after completion of an audit to ensure that federal dollars were no longer being given to organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus. Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” Some observers have interpreted that as an endorsement of conversion therapy, which Pence has said is not the case.
Now he’s the person in charge of response to the coronavirus epidemic, an appointment that, at the very least, calls Trump’s judgment into question.
Trump also made a questionable remark about the outbreak on his recent visit to India, saying the U.S. is down to 10 cases instead of the 60 confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And he said the U.S. was “very close to a vaccine,” leaving White House aides to scramble to say he meant a vaccine for Ebola, not the coronavirus.
It should likewise be noted that, as a cost-cutting measure, the Trump administration has disbanded a team of officials in the executive branch tasked with addressing pandemics and cut CDC funding. The administration has now asked Congress for new funds to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, something that may not have been needed if the previous cuts hadn't been made.