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The Coronavirus Debacle

The AP reports on more of the Trump White House’s bungling of the coronavirus response:

The White House overruled health officials who wanted to recommend that elderly and physically fragile Americans be advised not to fly on commercial airlines because of the new coronavirus, a federal official told The Associated Press.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention submitted the plan this week as a way of trying to control the virus, but White House officials ordered the air travel recommendation be removed, said the official who had direct knowledge of the plan. Trump administration officials have since suggested certain people should consider not traveling, but they have stopped short of the stronger guidance sought by the CDC.

There is no good reason for the White House to prevent this recommendation from being made public. This is another example of how the president and his top officials are trying to keep up the pretense that the outbreak is much less dangerous than it actually is, and in doing so they are helping to make the outbreak worse than it has to be. For the last several weeks, we have seen the president and top administration officials presenting the public with misleading and outright false information in an effort to conceal the magnitude of the problem and the extent of their initial failures. The president has been unwilling to tell the public the truth about the situation because he evidently cares more about the short-term political implications than he does about protecting the public:

Even as the government’s scientists and leading health experts raised the alarm early and pushed for aggressive action, they faced resistance and doubt at the White House — especially from the president — about spooking financial markets and inciting panic.

“It’s going to all work out,” Mr. Trump said as recently as Thursday night. “Everybody has to be calm. It’s going to work out.”

Justin Fox comments on the president’s terrible messaging:

The biggest problem, though, is simply the way that the president talks about the disease. His instinct at every turn is to downplay its danger and significance.

Minimizing the danger and significance of the outbreak ensured that the government’s response was less urgent and focused than it could have been. It encouraged people to take it less seriously and thus made it more likely that the virus would spread. Then when the severity of the problem became undeniable, the earlier discredited happy talk makes it easier for people to disbelieve what the government tells them in the future.

The administration had time to prepare a more effective response, but as I said last week the administration frittered away the time they had. They were still preoccupied with keeping the virus out rather than trying to manage its spread once it arrived here, as it was inevitably going to do:

“We have contained this. I won’t say airtight but pretty close to airtight,” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said in a television interview on Feb. 25, echoing Trump’s tweeted declaration that the virus was “very much under control” in the United States.

But it wasn’t, and the administration’s rosy messaging was fundamentally at odds with a growing cacophony of alarm bells inside and outside the U.S. government. Since January, epidemiologists, former U.S. public health officials and experts have been warning, publicly and privately, that the administration’s insistence that containment was—and should remain—the primary way to confront an emerging infectious disease was a grave mistake.

The initial response and the stubborn refusal to adapt to new developments have meant that the U.S. is in a much worse position in handling this outbreak than many other countries. Max Nisen comments on the lack of testing in the U.S.:

Don’t cheer just yet. The lower case count doesn’t mean Americans are doing a better job of containing the virus; rather, it reflects the fact that the U.S. is badly behind in its ability to test people. The Centers for Disease Control stopped disclosing how many people it has tested as of Monday, but an analysis by The Atlantic could only confirm 1,895 tests. Switzerland, a country with fewer residents than New Jersey, has tested nearly twice as many people. The U.K., which has far fewer cases, has tested over 20,000. This gap is particularly worrisome given evidence of community spread in a number of different states and a high death count, both of which suggest the number of cases will jump as more tests are conducted.

Capacity is finally ramping up, but only after weeks of delays prompted by unforced errors and botched early test kits from the CDC. The continuing inability to test broadly is leading to missed cases, more infections, and an outbreak that will be bigger than it needed to be.

The administration not only bungled their initial response, but they have also been extremely resistant to admitting error. Trump’s appointees are reluctant to contradict the president when he spouts nonsense about the outbreak, and that in turn makes it more difficult for them to communicate clearly and consistently with the public. All of this serves to undermine public trust in the government’s response, and it prevents health officials from being able to do their jobs without political interference. The federal government’s response has been hampered by a president who wants to make people think that the problem isn’t that bad and is already being dealt with successfully:

At the White House, Trump and many of his aides were initially skeptical of just how serious the coronavirus threat was, while the president often seemed uninterested as long as the virus was abroad. At first, when he began to engage, he downplayed the threat — “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA,” he tweeted in late February — and became a font of misinformation and confusion, further muddling his administration’s response.

On Friday, visiting the CDC in Atlanta, the president spewed more falsehoods when he claimed, incorrectly: “Anybody that needs a test, gets a test. They’re there. They have the tests. And the tests are beautiful.”

When the president lies about such a serious matter, he is causing unnecessary confusion and he is sending exactly the wrong message that remedying earlier failures is not an urgent priority. Because Trump’s primary concern is making himself look good in the short term, he is willing to risk a worse outbreak. During his visit to the CDC, the president went on in an even more bizarre vein to praise the tests by comparing them to his “perfect call” with the Ukrainian president last summer that led to his impeachment:

In an attempt to express confidence in the CDC’s coronavirus test (the agency’s second attempt after the first one it developed failed), Trump offered an unorthodox comparison from the last enormous crisis to swamp his presidency. The tests are just like his impeachment-causing attempt to pressure a foreign government to help him get reelected. “The tests are all perfect like the letter was perfect. The transcription was perfect. Right? This was not as perfect as that but pretty good,” Trump told reporters after falsely stating, again, that anyone who needed a test right now could get one.

This morning the president was back at it this morning with more self-serving misinformation:

The president needs people to think that everything he does is perfect, so he is incapable of acknowledging his failures and prefers to vilify accurate reporting about those failures. He cannot help but mismanage the government response because he cannot put the national interest ahead of his own selfishness. An untold number of Americans will be paying a steep price for the president’s unfitness for office in the weeks and months to come.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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