Coronavirus has provoked a panic. People are stockpiling masks and toilet paper, public gatherings are being canceled, dogs and cats are living together. But the evidence shows that COVID-19 has a death rate that is still only about two percent. What if the death rate was much higher? For example, what if what we were dealing with was similar to the Super Flu from The Stand or the Motaba virus from Outbreak? Would we be comfortable with the government’s reaction?
Granted, if the stakes were higher, the federal government and both parties would probably be reacting differently. Still, what I have seen so far has not instilled me with confidence that our government is capable of handling a more serious emergency.
First off, let’s consider the jurisdiction argument. The Constitution specifically grants Congress the power to take action and spend to promote the general welfare of the United States. While the general welfare clause has been much abused over the years, taking action to prevent a pandemic from potentially killing thousands of citizens would seem to be a legitimate public welfare goal. Further, the Public Health Service Act specifically permits a national emergency to be declared if a “disease or disorder presents a public health emergency” or in the case of “significant outbreaks of infectious diseases.”
Having established that it is a proper government role to prepare the country for a pandemic, let’s look at the federal government’s response. The good news is that the Trump Administration took the pro-active step of limiting immigration from China back in January when the extent of the epidemic there became clear. The bad news is that the Administration’s steps since then have been much more muddled and less effective.
At this point, it is impossible to get an accurate count of COVID-19 cases in the US because of a shortage of test kits. Early test kits were inaccurate because of a faulty component. That problem has been resolved but the kits are still in short supply due to high worldwide demand and production that simply can’t keep up.
There have been other missteps as well. For example, After American evacuees from Wuhan were brought into the US in February, a whistleblower reported that they were met by health workers without protective gear and who were not tested for the virus. Several patients who were supposed to be under quarantine left their homes to travel, possibly infecting hundreds of others in the process. As recently as yesterday, a former photographer for the Chicago Tribune tweeted that she flew into O’Hare from Spain and was not questioned about exposure to the virus or examined for symptoms.
Through it all, President Trump’s response has been inconsistent. Like elected officials in disaster movies, too often the president has seemed more focused on the election rather than preventing the spread of the disease and treating those who are at risk. There are reports that President Trump overruled a CDC plan to recommend that seniors, the most at-risk group for the Coronavirus, limit their air travel to help contain the disease. At the same time, the president said that he would prefer not to let cruise ship passengers who had been exposed to the disease enter the US where they could be treated and quarantined. As other organizations cancel public gatherings, the Trump campaign continues to hold rallies and the president continues to shake hands with supporters, even after an infected CPAC attendee exposed members of Congress to the virus. The president has, however, cited the Coronavirus as a reason to build the wall, a claim the director of the CDC rejects. Even after President Trump was exposed to the Coronavirus by a Brazilian official, the White House said that the president is not being tested for the disease and presumably will not subject himself to quarantine either. The president is setting a poor example for the country.
In fact, much of the information put out by the president has been bad. The president has been among those who pooh-poohed the severity of the disease, at one point saying that it would “miraculously” disappear by April, a statement disputed by the CDC. He has claimed that COVID-19 has been contained within the United States, that testing is available to anyone who wants it, and even that people infected by the virus should go to work. None of these claims are true.
Much of the Trump Administration’s response to the pandemic has been economic rather than health-related. Seeking to contain the damage that has been done to the stock market over the past week, the president has proposed a payroll tax cut and bailouts for affected industries. A travel ban directed at Europe seems to have been added as an afterthought and coincidentally exempts three nations that are home to Trump golf resorts.
At this point, the travel ban seems like a case of closing the barn door after the calf is out. COVID-19 is already present in the United States and apparently spreading quickly. As of this writing, there are 1,663 confirmed cases and likely many more that have not been identified. With the virus spreading inside our borders, restrictions would have to include domestic travel to be effective.
While the president was willing to declare a national emergency over migrant caravans approaching the southern border, he has so far been unwilling to do so with regard to the pandemic. Emergency measures to contain the virus within the US would undercut Mr. Trump’s claim that the virus is less severe than the “Fake News” and Democrats claim. Election year politics and the president’s previous claims that there is nothing-to-see-here-so-just-move-along make it difficult to acknowledge now that the virus is spreading throughout the country and is not contained at all.
As a conservative, I tend to view the government as inefficient regardless of which party is holding its reins at the time. Given the federal government’s response so far, it is a good thing that the estimated mortality rate of the Coronavirus is “only” about two percent. If we reacted as sloppily to an Ebola outbreak or a biological attack, there is no telling how many Americans would already be dead.
A two-percent mortality rate doesn’t mean that Coronavirus isn’t dangerous, however. The two percent rate is about 20 times the mortality rate of the flu. Germany estimates that about 70 percent of its citizens will become infected with the virus. If only half of the estimated 329 million Americans got sick, the 164.5 million cases would overwhelm the nation’s hospitals. A two percent mortality rate for the sick would mean that more than three million Americans would die from the virus. That’s serious and explains why containment is so important.
Thankfully, state and local governments, as well as private organizations, are picking up the slack. Georgia’s Republican governor asked schools to consider closing and New York deployed the National Guard to one hard-hit town to enforce a containment area and help deliver food to residents. Many organizations are postponing or canceling public gatherings to help prevent the spread of the disease. These closings are not totally altruistic. Few tickets to most events would be sold to a public that is increasingly avoiding crowds of strangers. Some Americans are panicking but others are taking simple precautions such as washing their hands and avoiding close proximity to those who are sneezing and coughing.
The Coronavirus is not Donald Trump’s fault, but it also is not a hoax or fake news. Unfortunately, the president seems to not be up to the task of leading the country through the crisis. Mr. Trump’s failure to rise to the occasion may haunt his re-election prospects much longer than this week’s stock market collapse.