“In a crisis, don’t hide behind anything or anybody. They are going to find you anyway.” — Bear Bryant
Leading from behind, President Trump recently said the COVID-19 virus is a Democratic “hoax,” claiming his opponents and the media are weaponizing the outbreak in order to lay the blame for the disease at his feet.
The virus is nobody’s fault. Virulent diseases spread regardless of politics, borders, race, gender, age or finances. In a world where international travel is routine, it’s difficult — if not impossible — to contain something like coronavirus.
What is at fault, however, is the president’s response. He initially blew off the coronavirus and now views it as an election year public relations problem, not a pandemic that is killing people here and around the world. To Trump, it’s just a numbers game; how many infected, how many dead, how will the markets react? Keep a lid on the first two and the third will be fine.
The coronavirus doesn’t care about Trump’s re-election calculus. It is spreading and the time frame until it burns itself out is unknown. The elderly with underlying medical conditions or people with compromised immune systems are particularly vulnerable to what radio comedian Rush Limbaugh called a “common cold.”
It’s not a cold. If you’re infected, you may experience severe respiratory problems that can lead to death. It’s true many recover, but the risk is still there.
“This virus is such a threat because it is both highly infectious and lethal, and not enough people are being tested,” wrote Trump’s former homeland security adviser, Tom Bossert, in the Washington Post on Tuesday. “By the time cases are confirmed, significant community transmission has likely already occurred.” Bossert added, “we are 10 days” from “hospitals getting creamed.”
This in mind, the correct approach back in early January would have been a proactive, aggressive, transparent response in which you help hospital and health care professionals prepare, while inviting the news media to be your messengers, keeping Americans informed about what’s coming, what they can do to prevent exposure to the virus and what to do if you’re sick. You listen to the doctors and scientists. You reassure the public, but you don’t downplay the threat.
Trump has done none of that. In fact, he frittered away many weeks, saying people feeling sick should just go to work and news outlets are overhyping the outbreak, then tweeting the media is “the enemy of the people.”
Chinese officials tried to bury the Wuhan outbreak, telling doctors who discovered it to shut up. It didn’t matter there and telling the media here to shut up won’t work either, but that’s the Trump administration’s game plan. Rather than present real leadership in handling this crisis truthfully, the fact-challenged president, many of his minions and the right-wing media are characterizing the coronavirus outbreak as a Democratic and mainstream media conspiracy to take down Trump.
Criticism aimed at the administration has been about its sluggish reaction, which began in 2018 when Trump shut down the National Security Council’s Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense set up by President Obama after the 2014 Ebola scare. Trump said he didn’t need those experts. Last week, when he visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he said you never know when something like coronavirus will strike — which is exactly why we needed the directorate. Had the experts been there, a faster, scientifically based response might well have been possible.
On Sunday, citing administration officials, the New York Times reported that the White House reaction has been chaotic.
“After weeks of conflicting signals from the Trump administration about the coronavirus,” the Times reported, “the government’s top health officials decided late last month that when President Trump returned from a trip to India, they would tell him they had to be more blunt about the dangers of the outbreak. … If he approved, they would level with the public.”
However, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, jumped the gun, “telling reporters on a conference call that life in the United States was about to change” and to prepare for “significant disruption to our lives.”
This is a seasoned medical expert talking, one whose job it is to keep Americans informed. Trump should listen to her but, of course, he went ballistic, reportedly bawling out the secretary of health and human services, to whom Dr. Messonnier answers, for roiling the financial markets and alarming people. Thus, the president’s No. 1 concern is perception, not reality.
Meanwhile, administration officials like Kellyanne Conway and Larry Kudlow are falsely telling reporters the coronavirus is “contained,” even as more cases and deaths are reported. That’s not just irresponsible, it’s dangerous.
Following his visit to the CDC, Trump left for Florida because yet another golfing weekend is more important than managing this unfolding crisis. That tells us much about his priorities.