As an aspiring congressman, Mike Pence once claimed “smoking doesn’t kill”. As governor of the midwestern state of Indiana, he faced heavy criticism for his handling of the situation when the state experienced the worst HIV crisis in its history.

It’s a track record that meant Donald Trump’s appointment of Pence on Wednesday to lead the US response to the coronavirus was met with immediate outrage from health specialists, following days of criticism about the government’s handling of a virus that has spread to almost every continent across the globe.

Those who have witnessed the vice-president make a series of what they see as ill-informed public health decisions throughout his political career say Pence is a dangerous choice, with one epidemiology professor comparing the appointment to “putting an arsonist in charge of the fire department”.

“We have the greatest experts, really in the world, right here,” the president said at a news conference at the White House on Wednesday, as he addressed the coronavirus crisis following days of criticism about his government’s sluggish response to warnings from his own federal agency that it’s a case of when not if there is community spread in the US.

From those experts, Trump then plucked Pence.

“We have no higher priority than the safety, security and health of the American people,” Pence told the media.

Experts, however, say Pence’s very appointment flies in the face of his own statement.

“[Trump] made the choice of putting someone absolutely not up to the task to this crucial position,” Gregg Gonsalves, assistant professor of epidemiology at Yale University, wrote on Twitter.

“It endangers us all. This isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue – we have the potential for [a coronavirus] outbreak in the US, and we needed to rise above the partisan fray.”

Of Pence’s appointment, Gonsalves said: “It’s like putting an arsonist in charge of the fire department, a bank robber in charge of the US Mint.”

As governor of Indiana, Pence oversaw one of worst HIV outbreaks in the state’s history in 2015. Pence’s response was widely criticized as inadequate and ill-informed.

When HIV badly hit southern Indiana, health workers found their efforts hampered by a woeful lack of public health staffing. Pence had slashed public health funding after assuming office.

An attempt to introduce needle exchange programs, which were seen as key to combatting the HIV crisis, was thwarted by Pence’s resistance to those efforts. In April 2015, the then governor finally allowed a needle exchange program, three months after the outbreak began, but for only 30 days.

Pence had also cut the budget for Planned Parenthood, which ran the nearest testing center to Austin, Indiana, where the outbreak began, exacerbating the crisis.

The now vice-president, an ardent evangelical who regularly introduces himself in speeches as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican – in that order”, has a troubling record on HIV that goes back even further.

As a congressman, Pence supported a controversial plank of George W Bush’s global Aids program, which stipulated 33% of funds must be spent on efforts to promote sexual abstinence and strict heterosexual monogamy.

“The timeless values of abstinence and marital faithfulness before condom distribution are the cure for what ails the families of Africa,” Pence told Congress in 2003. “It is important that we not just send them money, but we must send them values that work.”

Democrats scrambled to respond to Pence’s new position in the US handling of coronavirus on Thursday. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, said she had spoken with Pence about coronavirus, and made her concerns known. Leading Democrats have called for spending many times greater than the $2.5bn proposed by Trump earlier this week for dealing with US preparation to contain the outbreak.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the first-term progressive congresswoman with a huge following nationwide, summed up the feelings of many opponents of Trump.

“Mike Pence literally does not believe in science,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

“It is utterly irresponsible to put him in charge of US coronavirus response as the world sits on the cusp of a pandemic.

“This decision could cost people their lives. Pence’s past decisions already have.”

The Trump administration had been criticized for its response even before Pence’s appointment.

Trump, during his trip to India this week, told journalists that the coronavirus is “very well under control in our country” and “is going to go away”. That stood in stark contrast to the assessment of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which subsequently warned the virus could cause “severe disruption” to people’s lives.

“Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread [of coronavirus] in this country,” said Nancy Messonnier, the head of immunization at the CDC.

With Pence in charge of the medical response, Americans are now anxiously awaiting answers. But his track record is giving pause.

“Time for a quick reality check,” Pence wrote in a post on his website back in 2000, the year he was elected to the House.

“Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill.”

Scientists had long concluded that exactly the opposite was true. When Pence became governor of Indiana, in 2013, he slashed funding for programs designed to prevent smoking and help people quit.

As of 2018, Indiana had the eighth highest rate of cigarette smokers in the country.





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