Clueless in Washington

As the coronavirus spreads worldwide it is clear Donald Trump is the biggest threat to the health and well-being of Americans. He began by not taking action and hiding the facts from us while U.S. intelligence agencies were warning him in January that China had a virus problem. Once he was forced to acknowledge the pandemic he went on TV to say that it was more or less just “the flu,” downplaying it for a few weeks. When experts at NIH and CDC told him of the imminent danger, he finally began to admit publicly that it really was a deadly problem and everyone had to stay home and take hygiene precautions or else.

But he lost interest in that tack after about a week and now he is suggesting that we will have “won the war” by Easter and we can all let up on our precautions and get back to work. Why Easter? Who knows, except that it’s in line with his background as a game show host, wherein he could stage a cliffhanger at the end of an episode and tell the audience that in the next episode — on a specific day in the future — he would reveal the answer, or solve the mystery, or whatever. So tune in then, folks.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t understand that he can’t script the behavior of a virus. The virus does what it does, and infects whomever it can, and the world’s best experts know that it will take a long time to figure out how to fight it — anywhere from six months to two years. When he suggests that the crisis will be over long before that he puts all of us at increased risk. A study from Imperial College in London (PDF, March 16) reports that using the mitigation methods we have currently in place in the United States, the pandemic will kill a million Americans before it runs its course. If we take Trump at his word and relax our efforts, that number goes up to over 2 million, and neither of these numbers take into account that our healthcare system will be overwhelmed and only semi functional before it’s over.

We have held our breath for three years, hoping we would not face a crisis of this magnitude before Trump could be removed from office. Now it has happened. Donald Trump sees it as an obstacle to his reelection, not as an existential challenge. He wants to wish it away, as he was able to do on his game show. He wants to stop the inevitable crash of the U.S. (and world) economy, because he knows it will cost him many votes in November, and probably the election itself. And ironically his inaction and inappropriate action on the pandemic will cause the exact economic damage he thinks he’s avoiding.

Luckily, governors and mayors across the country are taking up the slack left by the president. But without the power of the federal government their own efforts are limited, and with Trump himself sending the message that coronavirus is nearly defeated, they are fighting against a strong headwind. Republicans in Congress and in the executive branch will not do what needs to be done, namely remove Donald Trump from office.

Alas, the best we can hope for now is that Trump gets bored with the whole pandemic thing and turns the official response over to those in the federal and state healthcare bureaucracies who actually know what’s happening. There is only a distant chance that he will do this, or that he will stop meddling with the expert response, but for now, it’s all we have.

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