The President has finally admitted that covid-19 is a pandemic, after publicly rejecting that fact for weeks. The effects of treating this as a political issue have already been felt. Directly contrary to Trump’s claims, transit from the infected region was neither quickly stopped nor was quarantine for those returning mandatory; rather, people who arrived were initially asked to self-quarantine.
There were two main reasons why people traveled to the area from the United States during that time. One was to attend an expected New Year’s celebration, to be held in China around January 25. The second was to conduct business meetings, typically for high-dollar international dealings where face-to-face encounters are preferred. Isolating returning millionaires, billionaires and their coterie of prominent aides, accountants and lawyers for two weeks would have risked both market prominence of some businesses and their likelihood to donate to GOP re-election campaigns. Whether this was a motivating factor or not, the decision was made to leave them to self-police.
Since then, outbreaks in New York City and Boston have been traced directly to businessmen who failed to adequately self-quarantine, and outbreaks in other parts of the country have been connected to meetings attended by them.
This is not unique. While the initiating factor isn’t always business interests, the novel coronavirus has similarly spread through other countries via international travelers.
This is simply to underscore the fact that Trump is lying about his response. It is in fact starting later than many other nations in responding to the crisis. Worse, that the delay was taken mostly with repeated attempts to downplay the issue rather than address it, a decision which continues to have ramifications. Many Trump supporters are now reluctant to embrace the dangers which the President finally admits, and are equally hesitant to recognize the actions which must be taken to respond.
So, we’re behind the curve on this one… but which curve?
South Korea saw its first case of Covid-19 on the same day that the United States did. They moved aggressively, ramping up production of safety masks and testing kits and attempting to isolate anyone known to have the disease. Their efforts did not stop the spread, but they did slow it; in a country where the population centers are very densely packed, they managed their crisis in a way that has kept their fatalities to about 1% of victims.
Italy, on the other hand had its first known case eleven days later than both the United States and South Korea. They responded in the way that President Trump did: casually, as if it were no more than a standard illness despite the lack of existing human antibodies to fight off the disease. The effect was devastating, with a rapid spread throughout the population and a fatality rate of greater than 6%.
The United States will likely see neither scenario occur… but it’s going to more closely approximate Italy. The requests for self-quarantine were not fully effective, but recognizing the problem publicly did likely slow its release into the general population. Also, American population centers tend not to be a densely packed as those in other countries. In rural and suburban areas, people can venture outside while reasonably expecting to avoid direct contact in ways that some city dwellers cannot.
We’re tracking along the Italian curve, but we’re doing so at a slower pace than them.
What we need to do, then, is to watch places like Italy, and respond to their problems before we encounter them ourselves. We are not doing that.
The best example is with ventilators. A story came out of Italy a couple of days ago that they were having problems sourcing a part for their ventilators, and that a clever 3-D printing company had managed to reproduce the part as an emergency measure, likely saving hundreds or even thousands of lives.
The immediate response for the United States should have been to ensure we had enough ventilators.
Instead, yesterday we learned that at least one New York hospital was splitting time on their ventilators between two patients in an attempt to keep everyone alive. Shortly after that story broke, we were treated to a tweet by Elon Musk offering to have Tesla and SpaceX gear up for immediate ventilator production and a press release saying that GM had contacted the White House about producing the devices.
These are both positive developments for having ventilators… but they should have been addressed as soon as Italy showed that they were overburdened at that the devices were a choke point for their medical treatment. Whatever other problems Italy encounters on the medical side… not enough beds, a reaction to outside influences, anything… should be taken as an important warning flag by American leadership.
The President has indicated to the Governors that they cannot expect competent and consistent help during this crisis. This means that the Governors must be the ones who watch the developments overseas and react. If that means dealing directly with corporate heads in a way that is normally left to the President, they should do so. The country needs leadership in this instance, and the answer is clear before them: watch what Italy is encountering and address that issue before it develops in their state.
The President loves to have attention. The Governors cannot care, beyond recognizing their fiscal limitations as his panicked and inconsistent economic plans tank the stock market and thus their available funds to fight the crisis. For those who do not recognize this simple fact, they need to be told by their constituents. This is not the time to allow Trump to take center stage. He is far too incompetent, and the lives of their citizenry are on the line.