Trump’s Worst Virus Failure – WSJ
My first surprise was that
embraced the job after his 2016 win, not treating his election as an unwelcome accident, a publicity stunt gone awry, or a personal disaster facilitated by the mad interventions of
He had every reason to. For the first time in his life, he would face opponents who didn’t merely want to get the better of him in a business deal but who craved his destruction. Welcome to politics. And he compounded his risk by his lifelong habit of bringing only episodic focus to any issue. Example: He pretty much lost interest in Covid when he saw his press conferences were not a ratings success.
Only lately has anyone remembered that
presided over the 1918 flu. Mr. Trump’s performance will be faulted for many reasons but the inquiry you won’t see is one that penetrates to a deeper truth, in which Mr. Trump proved a sideshow.
Because of the political stakes, our every perception of Covid tends to be politicized. In the first days of the pandemic, the press coverage was alive with inquiry and discovery but soon was overtaken by talking points. Politics is why. And while much excellent reporting is still done, the recent summaries of our failures being ordered up by editors all read like exercises in learning nothing. They are compendiums of wouldas and shouldas that long since went poof for any thinking person.
Top of the list is magic solution X, a national test and trace program. I won’t mince words. A 9-year-old could see the math didn’t work. Covid spreads more easily than the flu. An overwhelming share of cases are asymptomatic or indistinguishable from ailments that millions of Americans suffer every day. In a country as big, mobile and open as the U.S., there was zero chance of catching and isolating enough spreaders to matter.
Many experts said so at the time, but quietly.
eventually said so, but quietly. All implicitly knew not to get between the media and its imperative that every big misfortune be played as a failure of inadequate government.
Even when the testing data shouted the truth, the press couldn’t hear it. Our testing misses 70% to 90% of Covid cases and yet 91% of the people being tested for Covid tested negative and were suffering from something else. We were never going to make a dent in the epidemic this way. It was a distraction.
Which brings us to the irony of Mr. Trump. Few presidents, with his taste for nonconformity, were better selected by nature to lean against the wall of stupid that politics necessitates in such moments. Failing to do so was his missed opportunity.
I finally heard an intelligent public service announcement about masks on a local college station the other day. It ran for several minutes, worked through the permutations, and concluded that masks are likely to afford meaningful protection when both you and the infected spreader are wearing them and also are staying significantly more than 6 feet apart.
This was realistic advice of the sort that usually leads to good results. Our results have not been good. Demonstrably, the story since last spring has been one of increasing mask usage and declining social distancing (i.e., Mr. Trump was irrelevant). The upshot was a giant surge that only now is starting to recede because of the vaccine and natural herd immunity.
I don’t know whether the “optimal” number of deaths was 100,000 or 200,000, but I doubt it was today’s 400,000 and counting. The most crucial way to improve matters would have been a less grudging and earlier honesty with the American people about what must happen while waiting for a vaccine to materialize. A flu-like disease would not be stopped at a cost voters were willing to pay. It posed special risks to the aged and those in poor health. The factor modulating it up or down would be our personal risk management while doing what’s necessary to maintain an economy.
The government can distribute aid, try to lead with advice on masking and social distancing, engage in illustrative and often ill-advised bans on activities, but ultimately individual Americans decide how much risk to expose themselves and others to.
Notice that nobody needed to tell the NBA, in March 2020, to stop playing or how to resume a few months later, with due adjustment for Covid. To the extent we have successes to brag about apart from the vaccine, they will be like this: citizens adapting wisely despite the muddy and confusing signals from our leaders.
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Appeared in the January 23, 2021, print edition.