You wouldn't think that disease, particularly a communicable disease like coronavirus, would have to be shoved through the partisan political machine that we are using for most issues these days. It's not as if one side of the nation's divide is in favor of more disease.
But the partisan tones are there, and to me, at least, that raises the fundamental issue about whether Team Trump even wants to govern, or just run political rallies.
- Donald Trump and some of his key spokesmen, like economic adviser Larry Kudlow, is saying everything is under control, not to worry. Calling an evening public press conference to assure that the our government has a good handle on the spread of disease in this country, Trump said things are in such control that he is asking Vice President Mike Pence to coordinate the government's response, and that Congress can do whatever it wants. Hmm, Czar Pence or even Dr. Pence; that'll fix things. Actually, it feels as if the remarks about public health really are focused on Wall Street, which is overreacting through a plunge in stock values, and walk away from a public leadership role.
- The Centers for Disease Control is saying the opposite, that we are ill-prepared for a real spread of disease, lacking vaccines, appropriate research and even an appropriately large enough stock of emergency masks, adding that the first native case has arisen in California with no explanation. In congressional hearings, neither Health and Human Services head Alex M. Azar II nor acting Homeland Security leader Chad F. Wolf could say how widespread they believe the threat. Somehow we're supposed to prepare. Azar said that there are 30 million N95 masks in the nation's emergency stockpile, which typically cost less than $1 a piece.
- From Republicans, there continue to be some wild claims: Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Tucker Carlson on Fox News continue to air reports, with no evidence, that it is just as likely that a leak from Chinese biological weapons laboratory as from sick animals; conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh — not a medical researcher, doctor or apparently someone who notices thousands of deaths–told his listeners that coronavirus actually is just a common cold, not anything more severe, and that it is a hoax aimed at attacking Donald Trump; Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that the coronavirus outbreak shows how important it is for us to keep our borders secure.
- From Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., there was a link between spread or worry about disease spread to the lack of Medicare for All, and notes that Trump has cut money for the CDC. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., pointed out the obvious, that we need more than tweets and reassuring remarks, and should be stockpiling whatever is medically needed.
- In any event, Team Trump proposed paying $2.5 million in emergency spending to forestall a public health problem by — wait for it — cutting funds for the poor to be able to afford heating oil and other health programs. Also, Trump has said the disease will disappear as warmer weather arrives.
For skeptics like me, who love tracking the difference between what our government says and what it does, this already has become a classic.
Worries over Italy
Unless you've been in deep outer space for the last month, you are aware that the massive efforts to contain the disease in China have not proved sufficient from keeping travelers to transport the illness to many other countries. The arrival of the disease in Italy, in particular, has officials worried because there is so much travel among countries and to the United States.
Just to be clear, what I would expect from the White House is for the president to put medical personnel front and center to tell Americans in stark terms to increase personal hand-washing and hygiene, to avoid crowds when possible, and to assure that there are actual plans beyond generalized assurances that the government knows what to do in a public health emergency.
Of course, this government is still busily undercutting health care and access to doctors, so perhaps even Team Trump recognizes that there is a certain hypocrisy here.
Protect healthcare workers
The White House should be reaching out to help protect health workers. Globally, we are seeing health workers among the fatalities.
Trump might be sending CDC officials to China to get at the actual information rather than inviting Senator Cotton to the White House to spread misinformation.
As one who depends on subways for daily transportation, hearing there, there, everything is going to be just fine just doesn't cut it.
Money over public health
My own personal razzberry awards go to Wall Street, where protection from losing money on companies that will be among those most affected by coronavirus — airlines, for example, and companies like Apple with idled factories in China — has taken a bigger role than worry about public health. Of course, no one is going to halt the lure of lucre.
But I would expect an engaged president to tell Wall Street publicly and privately that they should be cooling their massive trading in the name of a stable United States, even a stable global economy.
Like many, I've been frustrated with the Chinese for playing hide-and-seek with information about what is quickly headed towards pandemic status. As with Team Trump, there seems to be more concern about face-saving or protecting the economy than there is with public health.
As the disease starts to put down roots in this country, where it will prove both disruptive and dangerous, I find our own government's response to be anemic and weak.
If we ever needed more evidence for attention to public health, this is it.
Let's Keep America Healthy — and Factual.