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With Nation Ill-Prepared for Virus, the President Spreads Confusion

Trump's spinning of fanciful notions risks public's distrust

He was half the world away in India when the coronavirus made landfall in the U.S. and the stock market tanked. Even from afar he began a steady commentary — in meetings , by tweets, by call-ins to television — to paint a rosier picture of the oncoming pandemic, using his access to the media to drown out the more sobering forebodings of the nation's health professionals.

"Well, I don’t think it’s inevitable. It probably will, it possibly will. It could be at a very small level or it could be at a larger level. Whatever happens, we’re totally prepared.”

The U.S. neither was nor is totally prepared. He was hoping to subsume the counseling of Nancy Meissonier of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In a briefing, she being the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Meissonier had warned that the virus’s spread to the United States was no longer a question of “if” but a question of “exactly when this will happen. We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad."

The president hoped to wish away the looming problem with his improbable musings. On three different occasions in previous weeks he had put his faith in the virus behaving like annual flu:

 "There's a theory that in April, when it gets warm, historically that has been able to kill the virus."…

 "The virus. They're working hard. Looks like by April, you know in theory when it gets a little warmer it miraculously goes away. That's true"…

 "The virus that we're talking about having to do [sic], you know a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat, as the heat comes in. Typically that will go away in April".

The World Health Organization advised against false hopes that the virus will fade during the warmer season. Too little is known about this virus; behavior as seasonal flu cannot be assumed.

Driving Mr. Trump's longing that the virus would simply go away is that he counts on the robust economy to win for him re-election and is "furious about the stock market’s slide", one of his aides anonymously told the media. He has boasted continuously about the market's rise being the result of his tax cuts and his browbeating the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates. At his news conference on return from India we heard a president too impatient to wait for April; he seemed to be trying to juice stock prices by declaring the global pandemic had already been prevented in the U.S.:

"[W]hen 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".

Trump's circle seemed instructed to care more about stock prices than the contagion. Cheerleading that investors should bid up the market again, Trump's Director of the National Economic Council, Larry Kudlow, said, "Stocks look pretty cheap to me"; he told The Washington Post that investors should take advantage of one-day slumps and “buy the dips”. Contradicting the worry of health officials, Kudlow's optimistic assessment on CNBC sounded as if the feared "community spread" of the virus had already come and gone:

“We have contained this. I won’t say airtight, but pretty close to airtight. The business side and the economic side, I don’t think it’s going to be an economic tragedy at all...The numbers are saying the U.S. [is] holding up nicely.”

If you don't believe him, you can place your trust with counselor to the president, Kellyanne Conway, who says "It is being contained". Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross saw benefits to a contagion. Last month he told Fox Business,

“I think it will help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America, some to [the] U.S., probably some to Mexico as well.”

Government officials are wary of contradicting this president. At a White House briefing on the coronavirus outbreak, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar guardedly suggested more was yet to come:

"[W]hat every one of our experts and leaders have been saying for more than a month now remains true: The degree of risk has the potential to change quickly, and we can expect to see more cases in the United States".

feel good lies?

Perhaps to calm fears, not least his own for what a pandemic could do to the economy and re-election prospects, the president continued to deeply mislead the public. He has repeatedly said, "we're very close to a vaccine” and in that news conference said:

"We are rapidly developing a vaccine...The vaccine is coming along well, and in speaking to the doctors, we think this is something that we can develop very rapidly."

The U.S. may have a vaccine “relatively soon”, he said at a rally in North Carolina the night before Super Tuesday. "Something that makes you feel better ...sooner", except a vaccine is not a cure. It prevents disease. And it is nowhere near available. A candidate vaccine for Covid-19, the preferred name for the particular virus as one of a family of viruses named "corona", is only approaching first-step safety tests. Federal experts say anything for widespread use looks to be more than a year away. “We can't rely on a vaccine over the next several months,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease chief at the National Institutes of Health and probably the world.

By the way, Trump doesn't believe his rallies — gatherings of thousands according to his numbers — pose a threat of spreading illness. “We’ll hold tremendous rallies”.

Similarly, Trump declared that “Anybody who wants a test" for the virus "can get a test", which was entirely false because so few test kits had come on stream. He attests that the accuracy of the coronavirus test is “perfect — like the letter was perfect." He often mocks Joe Biden for slips but here he was confusing letter with phone call — the call to Ukraine's president that he unceasingly described as perfect.

His assurance that anyone can get a test makes for concern that demand for testing “has the potential to overwhelm the public health system, and the country”, said Scott Becker, head of the public health lab association.

At a time when preparedness should be the constant theme with the public, Mr. Trump was in full denial about coronavirus cases. Signing at the White House an $8.3 billion funding bill to combat the scourge he instructed the public, “Be calm. It will go away."

“We're going down, not up. We’re going very substantially down, not up”. With very few tested and little known of how widely disease will spread, Trump bathed in self-congratulation as if the threat is gone: "Because of all we've done, the risk to the American people remains very low". He tweeted:

“It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear. And from our shores, we, you know, it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows. The fact is, the greatest experts, I’ve spoken to them all, nobody really knows.”

Placed in charge of managing the virus response, Vice President Pence immediately ordered that no one speak to the media or the public without prior clearance from his office. But that didn't stop the president. Weeks into the first cases reported in the U.S., the president is still spreading his own theories about Covid-19. When he called into Fox News in the first week of March, Sean Hannity informed him that with over 100,000 cases reported and some 3,400 deaths, the mortality rate for Covid-19 was running at 3.4%. Mr. Trump disagreed. He decides according to instinct and his "gut" rather than knowledge or information, and this time it was a "hunch":

"Well, I think that 3.4% is really a false number. This is just my hunch, but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this [sic] because a lot of people will have this and it's very mild. They'll get better very rapidly. They don't even see a doctor. They don't even call a doctor...So we have hundreds of thousands of people who get better, by, you know, sitting around, even going to work, some of them going to work, but they get better...But they don't know about the easy cases because the easy cases don't go to the hospital. They don't report to doctors or the hospital in many cases, so I think that that number is very high. Personally I would say the number is way under 1%."

Here was the president suggesting people can go to work, infecting others with this contagion, so as to prop up his economy. He then said his comments were misconstrued and blamed the Democrats and the media. “I NEVER said people that are feeling sick should go to work,” he tweeted.

SLINGS AND ARROWS

President Trump and Democrats traded blame. At a rally he held the night before Saturday's Democratic primary in North Charlestown, South Carolina, the president called Democratic criticism of the administration's handling of the disease outbreak "a hoax", his all-purpose word that no longer comports to its dictionary meaning. Right wing media joined in.

Democrats are “sadly politicizing and weaponizing an infectious disease as their next effort to bludgeon President Trump”, said Hannity. “The reason you’re seeing so much attention to [coronavirus] today is that they think this is going to be the thing that brings down the president”, newly ousted Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said. “That’s what this is all about it.”

CDC's Messonnier, a professional in the field of infectious diseases, drew suspicion of a “deep state” conspiracy for her being sister of Rod Rosenstein, the former deputy attorney general who oversaw special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

“How sick that these people seem almost happiest when Americans are hurting”, accused Fox News' Laura Ingraham, bashing Democrats for “relishing in this moment”. That was slander with no basis, of course; no one hopes for an epidemic. Her "sick" adjective could better be applied to he who has brought the country together all these years and so richly deserved the Medal of Freedom recently bestowed on him by Trump, namely Rush Limbaugh, who said the media "would love for the coronavirus to be this deadly strain that wipes everybody out so they could blame Trump for it". Eldest son Donald Trump Jr. was equally blinkered about just who is sick for saying much the same: “For them to try to take a pandemic and seemingly hope that it comes here and kills millions of people so that they can end Donald Trump’s streak of winning is a new level of sickness,” he told Fox News.

numbers not lives

About a contagion that only recently arrived in this country, he boasted,

“We have very low numbers compared to major countries throughout the world. Our numbers are lower than just about anybody".

And he wants to keep those numbers low. He talked on the phone with California Gov. Gavin Newsom about the 3,500 people quarantined on a cruise ship off the California coast. Trump wanted the passengers to remain on the ship so they would not add to the total sick count in the United States. “I don't need to have the numbers double because of the people on that ship”, he said. It was an outrage better kept quiet; Pence later said the ship would be brought to berth in Oakland.

A CBS/YouGov poll found that, among Trump supporters, 11% say they trust the media but 91% say that they rely on what Trump says as the truth. But by the time of his visit to the CDC in Atlanta, after all the misinformation that had gone before, perhaps some of them had second thoughts, when what he said turned comical:

"I think we

are doing a really good job in this country at keeping it down. We've really been very vigilant...I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said, 'How do you know so much about this. Maybe I have a natural ability'. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president."

With outbreaks recorded in 90 countries around the world, the president, by not staying with somber scientific assessments and instead concocting wishful delusions that the virus will simply go away, has undercut his own believability going forward. By continuing to mislead he runs the risk of losing the trust of even ardent followers who want the truth for the sake of their families, friends, and co-workers. As Trump often says, "We'll see what happens", but he should take note of a line in the HBO series on Chernobyl, "Every lie incurs a debt to the truth and eventually that debt is paid".

1 Comment for “With Nation Ill-Prepared for Virus, the President Spreads Confusion”

  1. The ratings on preparedness I saw rated the United States as the most prepared country in the world.

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