In a world irrevocably changed, Trump is an active part of the calamity | Editorial

Posted Mar 18, 2020

Even for those elected officials who are not steeped in policy intricacies, there are historic moments when people look to them for courage, leadership and foresight.

COVID 19 has extracted none of these from Donald Trump. As Americans sift through the strata of a global pandemic, the president has spent most of the last three months dismissing this upheaval with pure cynicism — treating it as a nuisance and calling it as a hoax, lying about it being under control, blaming his predecessor, telling sick people to go to work, contradicting public health experts, marinating in self-praise, and wretchedly failing to give this crisis the respect or vigor that it demanded.

He seemed to turn a small corner Monday — at least rhetorically — and the country whispered a silent amen as his usual prattle of worthless predictions were preempted by a sober discussion of how Americans should approach our uncertain future.

But presidents are judged more by actions than by words, and the blunders made by this one will be marked in history as recklessly myopic:

♦ America does not have a unit responsible for coordinating international pandemic response, because Trump disbanded it two years ago.

In May of 2018, he closed the National Security Council’s office for Global Health Security and Biodefense, which was set up by President Obama after the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak. That same day, a new Ebola outbreak was declared in Congo.

In such a sprawling government, leadership must be centralized to respond to a crisis, and this office was tasked with galvanizing resources to coordinate the domestic and international response.

As Dr. Anthony Fauci, our leading infectious disease expert, told Congress, “It would be nice if the office was still there.”

But it’s not. We do, however, have Space Force.

When Trump was asked whether he took responsibility for disbanding the unit Friday, he called it a “nasty” question and said he didn’t know anything about it.

 Trump delayed testing for coronavirus — for at least two crucial months.

In early February, the Trump administration rejected tests that the World Health Organization was already sending out to 60 countries, ostensibly so that the US could develop its own. Moreover, we are only getting started on infrastructure such as drive-through testing sites.

The delay caused incalculable damage: Testing is one of our best tools against an outbreak, because it identifies sick people and allows us to isolate them. The failure to deliver tests prevents the chances of identifying infections before they are passed on.

So four months after the first outbreak in China, we are still flying blind because we do not know where to target resources, how to mobilize efforts, or who to quarantine.

Entering last weekend, only 15,000 Americans had been tested. South Korea tests 10,000 people daily.

Ron Klain, who coordinated the US response to Ebola in 2014, says we need 30 million tests to get a handle on this epidemic.

 Trump wasted time by spreading misinformation that was repeated by his surrogates at unfathomable cost.

Any other president would have collected his team and insisted on a blunt analysis of the suffering on the horizon, and then moved mountains to abate it. Trump had no such team. So instead of preparing the country for a medical catastrophe and drastic social disruption, Americans were told “We’re very close to a vaccine” and “Anyone who wants a test can get one.”

By now, Trump has accelerated that process with assertions such as “No one saw this coming.” As Harvard epidemiologist William Hanage wrote last Friday, “We were not outwitted, outpaced or outflanked. We knew what was coming. We just twiddled our thumbs as the coronavirus waltzed in.”

This is going to get much worse before it gets better, because of a failure of leadership from an overmatched man with a severe attention deficit. Trump will likely change his tone now, let Congress take the lead in alleviating the suffering, and eventually will retreat into campaign mode by blaming China, Europe, and Democrats.

But Americans know when we need leadership, and they’re getting it only from our mayors and governors.

This presidency began with “I alone can fix it,” and four days ago it imploded with “I don’t take responsibility at all.”

Somewhere in between, the economy crashed, schools were shuttered, people were frightened, lives were lost, public events were cancelled, and the country shut down. We are in the dark place without a beacon.

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