When a President is confronted with a serious emergency, the public has a rare chance to see the stuff he’s made of. With the coronavirus (covid-19), Trump had his opportunity to shine. His response has been an unfolding disaster.
From the start of the looming crisis in January, Trump seemed more concerned about the effect of covid-19 on his prized stock market, rather than the health and safety of the American people. We were told that the initial dives of the stock indexes gave the public good investing opportunities, rather than being warned that the country needed to mount an emergency response to protect public safety.
His rosy talk about the disease has had a dramatic effect on the stock market, but not the one he expected. Savvy traders knew the happy talk was completely out of place and pushed the panic button. If you fear the captain is cluelessly steering toward the rocks, you jump ship. The traders’ over-reaction has had the markets in continuing turmoil and will likely have significant adverse effects across the economy in coming months.
Every public health expert was warning in January that the covid-19 virus would reach the U.S. Rather than gearing up to confront the threat, Trump consistently tried to gloss over the danger to preserve his political standing.
Disease experts warned that widespread testing was essential to find out who was infected by the covid-19 virus. If you don’t know who has it, you can’t stop its spread. We flat failed to produce and distribute testing kits and are still way behind the efforts of less powerful nations. As of March 9, we didn’t know how many people had been tested in the U.S., but the most educated guess was around 2,000. South Korea had tested over 180,000 by that time.
On February 26, our President was telling us there were 15 cases in the U.S. and they would somehow go away. He said, “And again, when you have 15 people–and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero–that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” Since that time the virus has spread across the country and we are seeing an increasing number of fatalities.
When meeting with drug company executives on March 3, the President insisted that a coronavirus vaccine was likely to be available in short order. As he put it, “I’ve heard very quick numbers, that of months.” Both government experts and drug execs tried to dissuade him of the idea that a quick fix was just around the corner, cautioning that it would be over a year before a vaccine could be deployed.
Trump has also tried to shift the blame to others, claiming that the Obama administration adopted some sort of rule that changed testing requirements. Nobody, not even Trump, has been able to find that phantom rule. Even if it existed, Trump is in the fourth year of his term and should have long ago laid the groundwork for combating a pandemic. What he did do in that time is substantially reduce spending for pandemic response.
The most critical element in combating a pandemic is to level with the people–be honest in telling them about the nature of the threat, what is being done about it and the problems that need to be overcome. When the public comes to believe that the President is making politically-inspired happy talk in a disaster setting, panic can easily set in and impede an effective response.
The people need to see signs that the President’s first and foremost concern is their safety, rather than his political standing. They don’t want to hear quibbling over the death rate of covid-19 because their loved one is just as dead at .1% as 3.4%. They want decisive action, not misleading happy talk.