“The Only Thing We Have To Fear …

... is our president's lack of leadership

Scroll through the newsfeed of any social media platform and you’ll be met with a wide variety of reactions to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Pictures of empty grocery aisles, jokes about toilet paper hoarding, and lots and lots of outrage, both over the lack of taking this seriously to condemnations of the whole mess being overblown. All of which is perfectly understandable. The fact is, we — both individually and as a society — have never faced anything quite like this. We are ill-equipped to deal with the psychological ramifications of having our world turned upside down through isolation, the loss of income, and the very real fear that we may lose someone we love.

In order for our nation to unite and work together with a singular purpose requires leadership from the highest office in the land. The person vested with this responsibility, Donald J. Trump, has cravenly chosen to prioritize optics over action, leaving us all to wonder, “What happens next?“

Although the gravity of the situation lept into the nation’s consciousness, literally, in a matter of days, the outbreak actually began in December (hence COVID-19, as in 2019), when the first case of a strange virus was reported in Wuhan, China (scientists have since determined it may have happened earlier). Spreading rapidly, it soon began to overburden the area’s ability to cope and by Jan. 23, Wuhan was in lockdown.

The first known case on American soil was announced by the Centers for Disease Control on Tuesday, Jan. 21. The next day, the president, in response to a question raised by Squawk Box co-host Joe Kernen in an interview from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, said:

“We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China. We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

Then, during remarks after a meeting with GOP Senators on March 10, Trump offered this:

“And we’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.“

The next day, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic.

Mike Ryan, the WHO’s head of emergencies, told NPR on March 12, “There’s clearly an indication that a systematic government-led approach using all tactics and all elements available seems to be able to turn this disease around,“ referring to the successful approaches taken Hong Kong and Singapore.

 

It’s become clear to anyone not at the beach or willfully ignorant that the pandemic we face has been silently moving through the US population for well over two months. The novel coronavirus (officially named “SARS-CoV-2”) and the disease it causes, “coronavirus disease 2019” (“COVID-19”), is progressing at an exponential rate in the US. We need only to look at what’s happening in Europe now to see what will soon be happening here. Five Bay Area counties in California, including San Francisco, are already under a shelter-in-place order. NYC could soon follow.

The disruption to our local economy has already begun. Bars, clubs, and restaurants, along with the entire music, entertainment, & hospitality industries, have borne the initial brunt — although the financial pain is rippling through the economy with each passing day. What follows is still unknown but, in order to understand what to expect, it’s important to understand how the crisis unfolded.

Because of the near-total lack of leadership and direction coming from the Trump administration prior to the declaration of a National Emergency on March 13, state and local authorities have been left to develop responses on their own — not an easy task considering the decisions required to avert overwhelming health-care providers will necessarily pose grave economic costs to the constituents they serve.

In order to see what happens in the void created by this lack of a cohesive policy at the federal level, look at Nashville Mayor John Cooper’s announcement this past Sunday, in which he ordered bars to close and banned public gatherings, Almost immediately, Steve Smith, the owner of Tootsies and other establishments in the Lower Broadway area, issued a statement, which read in part: “We appreciate the efforts of Mayor Cooper to combat the COVID-19 virus, but unless there’s a statewide mandate that directs all bars and restaurants to be closed, the request made by Mayor Cooper is unconstitutional as he is targeting a select group of businesses.” Smith has since agreed to comply with the order, largely due to public outcry.

Meanwhile on Sunday, Trump offered this during a press conference:

“We see what’s happening. We see what’s going on in other countries. We’re looking at — we’re learning from watching other countries, frankly. This is a very contagious — this is a very contagious virus. It’s incredible. But it’s something that we have tremendous control over.”

Tremendous control over. This, despite the fact that, due to the administration’s inability or unwillingness to make wide-spread testing a priority as soon as the first confirmed case was reported in late January, no one truly knows the number of people currently infected and where they are.

As for the lag in testing, Trump deflected responsibility at his Friday, March 13 press conference during this exchange with NBC News reporter Kristen Welker:

Welker: Dr. Fauci said earlier this week that the lag in testing was, in fact, ’a failing.’ Do you take responsibility for that? And when can you guarantee that every single American who needs a test will be able to have a test?  What’s the date of that?“

President Trump:  “Yeah, no, I don’t take responsibility at all, because we were given a — a set of circumstances and we were given rules, regulations, and specifications from a different time.  It wasn’t meant for this kind of an event with the kind of numbers that we’re talking about. And what we’ve done is redesigned it very quickly with the help of the people behind me. And we’re now in very, very strong shape. I think we’ll be announcing, as I said, Sunday night, and this will start very quickly. And we — we’ll have — we’ll have the ability to do in the millions over a very, very quick period of time. So, no.”

One can easily understand the confusion people with such a statement by looking at what the president said a few weeks earlier during a Feb. 28 rally in Charleston, South Carolina Rally (full transcript here):

“My administration has taken the most aggressive action in modern history to prevent the spread of this illness in the United States. We are ready. We are ready. Totally ready. On January 31st, I ordered the suspension of foreign nationals who have recently been in China from entering the United States. An action which the Democrats loudly criticized and protested and now everybody’s complimenting me saying, “Thank you very much. You were 100% correct.” Could’ve been a whole different story. But I say, so let’s get this right. A virus starts in China, bleeds its way into various countries all around the world, doesn’t spread widely at all in the United States because of the early actions that myself and my administration took against a lot of other wishes, and the Democrats’ single talking point, and you see it, is that it’s Donald Trump’s fault, right? It’s Donald Trump’s fault. No, just things that happened.“

Given the long-standing precedence of pandering to a base with nativist impulses, Trump’s first instinct toward containment is unsurprising, as it was unlikely to be met with any pushback. In fairness, Trump’s placement of travel restrictions with China early on in the crisis was of immeasurable importance; however, it begs the question: If this was so important, then why did Trump continue to demonstrate such a lack concern or urgency in his subsequent remarks, while insisting that, “We are ready”?

In what might eventually be seen as the understatement of the decade, we were not “ready.” According to a March 6 article by Politico reporter Joanne Kenen, Chinese scientists posted the genome of the mysterious new virus on Saturday, Jan. 11, and within a week virologists in Berlin had produced the first diagnostic test for the disease. The World Health Organization had shipped tests to nearly 60 countries by the end of February; for reasons not yet clear, the US wasn’t among them.

In a 3½-page letter on the testing fiasco sent to Vice President Mike Pence, Health Secretary Alex Azar, Centers for Disease Control director Robert Redfield, and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), who represents the hard-hit state of Washington, asked, “Please provide an explanation for why the Covid-19 diagnostic test approved by the World Health Organization was not used.” So far, none has been provided. Continuing his policy of never allowing the truth to get in the way of optics or offending his boss, Pence told reporters recently, with regards to testing, “We’ve actually been progressing with this on par with our peer countries.“

In South Korea, more than 66,650 people were tested within a week of its first case of community transmission. According to data available at the COVID Tracking Project, as of March 18, the US has tested just over 71,000 people to date (403 tested in Tennessee, with 73 positives) since the first case was reported in the contiguous 48 states on Jan. 20 in Snohomish County, Washington. This lag in testing is important to note because large-scale testing has been the key component in successful attempts at mitigating the socio-economic impact of the pandemic.

Unfortunately, leading from behind seems to have been baked into the situation do to the administration’s 2018 firing of the federal government’s entire pandemic-response chain of command, including the White House management staff.

Monday’s press conference was of little solace, for even as it finally seemed as though the White House had finally gotten on board with the need to restrict social interactions on a wide scale, these were only offered as guidelines, not a mandate. Yesterday, New York Magazine described the confusion created by the administration’s lack of a well thought out plan when NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the need for shelter-in-place order that was quickly contradicted by Governor Andrew Cuomo: “We have no interest whatsoever — and no plan whatsoever — to quarantine any city.”

During the Charlotte rally, Trump also said:

“I also created a White House virus task force. It’s a big thing, a virus task force. I requested 2.5 billion dollars to ensure we have the resources we need. The Democrats said, “That’s terrible. He’s doing the wrong thing. He needs eight and a half billion, not two and a half.” I’ve never had that before. I ask for two and a half, they want to give me eight and a half, so I said, “I’ll take it.” Does that make me a bad… I’ll take it. I’ll take it. I never had that before. I never had it. We want two and a half million. That’s plenty. We demand you take eight and a half. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. We want eight and a half. These people are crazy.”

That’s 2.5 to 8.5 billion dollars being discussed on Feb. 28. Today, a mere six weeks later, the ask is for over $1 trillion. Which is on top of the $1.5 trillion the Fed injected into the markets on Friday. Gone are the days when Trump thought he could tweet away reality, sluffing it off in the hopes the “numbers” would just keep “looking great” because he said they did.

He and his GOP lapdogs in Congress now realize they are staring down an economic catastrophe on the scale of a global depression; at the very least, a global recession seems unavoidable. On top of that, The New York Times reported that human cost could exceed 1.6 million lives lost to COVID-19 in the US alone, based on a worst-case scenario projection by the CDC.

The report goes on to say that “without an understanding of how the nation’s top experts believe the virus could ravage the country, and what measures could slow it, it remains unclear how far Americans will go in adopting — or accepting — socially disruptive steps that could also avert deaths. And how quickly they will act. Studies of previous epidemics have shown that the longer officials waited to encourage people to distance and protect themselves, the less useful those measures were in saving lives and preventing infections.“

44 states and counting are placing severe restrictions on public gatherings; many have closed bars and restaurants. All have done so on their own.

To make matters worse, the Centers for Disease Control, normally the “go-to” resource during any health crisis, have been hobbled by the ineptitude of the Vice President’s leadership of the White House Coronavirus Task Force (as of this writing, its webpage hadn’t been updated since March 12) and the administration’s dismantling of the response infrastructure needed to implement a national strategy and communicate that strategy to the public in a clear and cohesive manner. Instead, all we have to go by is a two-page PDF on the whitehouse.gov website called “The Presidents Guidelines for American — 15 Days to Slow the Spread.”

And while this is pinned to the top of his twitter feed:

NPR reports just 56% of Americans consider the pandemic a “real threat,“  representing a drop of 10 percentage points from last month, based on a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.  Increasingly, Republicans consider the threat to be “overblown.“

Based on credible reporting on the novel coronavirus pandemic:

  • The virus is highly contagious and, once “community spread” begins, the number of infections increases exponentially.
  • Widespread testing is critical to understanding, in near-real-time, the rate of infection and identifying those who are infected. When identified, they should be quarantined through a 14-day self-quarantine mandate (unless, of course, they require hospitalization) and their contacts should be tracked. By removing those infected from the community through mandatory self-quarantine, the rate of infection can be slowed enough to prevent local healthcare systems from being overwhelmed.
  • The quest is for “herd immunity“ but at this point, when or even if this might happen is still uncertain. According to a recent report in The Guardian, the possibility of reinfection seems unlikely, however, virologists have yet to reach a definitive conclusion. Nevertheless, during a hearing before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on March 12, when Dr. Anthony Fauci was asked if people who recover from the virus might now be immune, he replied: “We haven’t formally proved it, but it is strongly likely that that’s the case. Because if this acts like any other virus, once you recover, you won’t get re-infected.”

All that being said, we should plan for the very real possibility of multiple rounds of social distancing, according to a Times opinion piece written by Drs. Ezekiel J. Emanuel, Susan Ellenberg, and Michael Levy: “No one knows for sure how long social distancing will have to last to reduce the spread to near zero. But if South Korea and China are appropriate exemplars, we’ll need to stay apart now for at least eight weeks, and maybe more.” They add that the irony of the social distancing, which is critical in order to prevent overwhelming health-care providers, means fewer people will develop immunity. Consequently, there’s a likelihood that we can expect subsequent rounds of social distancing, with disruptions lasting for months.

Doing the right thing begets doing the right thing, which is why a true leader will rise above partisanship and political considerations during a time of crisis. Allowing political calculations to interfere with honesty and decisiveness is not leadership, it’s a recipe for disaster. Instead, we have this:

Once again, the president clearly shows mastery of the medium by managing to squeeze in multiple superlatives and a pat on (his own) back, topped off with an America First nativist flourish: Chinese Virus. Oh, and Fake News. What remains unclear is why “Borders“ is in quotations. However, the take away is this: How can the president lead a focused, coordinated response to a National Emergency while at the same time undermining the credibility of news outlets not named Fox?

The fact is, he can’t. President Trump’s unwillingness to honor the obligations of the office in which he serves poses serious challenges to a nation in crisis. From beachgoers to his base, Maine to Alaska, governers to mayors, we are all looking for him to lead the way. Otherwise, it will be a patchwork of responses from one area to the next, and people within each area will either take it seriously or not. For now, local authorities throughout the country have been left to fend for themselves; some, like Mayor Cooper, made the bold decision to act even before the president offered public support for such action. Until the president decides to shift from self-aggrandizing tweets to standing before the nation and saying, “I take full responsibility,“ we are on our own.