In the face of a rapidly expanding global coronavirus pandemic that has already killed dozens and infected at least 1,200 within the United States, U.S. President Donald Trump delivered a strange Oval Office speech Wednesday in which he focused on banning travel from Europe, said nothing about the lack of available testing across the country and ignored many crucial aspects of the public health crisis.
The president said he would ban non-citizens from travelling to the United States from Europe for 30 days amid the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus now declared a pandemic. The ban will apply to anyone in the European Union’s 26-country Schengen Area and those who have travelled there in the past 14 days. It begins Friday.
The president initially said all travel would be suspended from Europe but later clarified that the ban would exempt Americans, permanent residents and their families, although such travellers could be subject to additional screening at ports of entry. Trump also clarified, amid confusion over his remarks, that the ban did not apply to trade with Europe, only “people.”
“Please remember, very important for all countries & businesses to know that trade will in no way be affected by the 30-day restriction on travel from Europe,” he wrote on Twitter. “The restriction stops people not goods.”
Trump said he would soon enact a spate of economic measures meant to avert any lasting financial damage, instructing the Small Business Administration to provide aid to businesses affected by the virus. He said he would ask U.S. Congress to divert an additional US$50 billion to the program and consider immediate payroll tax relief in an attempt to kickstart the economy.
“This is not a financial crisis, this is just a temporary moment of time that we will overcome together as a nation and a world,” Trump said. “We are all in this together. We must put politics aside, stop the partisanship and unify together as one nation and one family.”
He moved to place some blame on Europe for the spread of the virus there, touting his own efforts to ban travel from China.
“Taking early, intense action, we have seen dramatically fewer cases in the virus than are now present in Europe,” Trump said, using the term “foreign virus” for COVID-19. “The European Union failed to take the same precautions. As a result, a large number of new clusters in the United States were seeded from [the region].”
Hours after Trump’s speech, the U.S. State Department posted a travel advisory on its website recommending that citizens reconsider foreign travel due to the coronavirus pandemic and countries’ response to it.
“Many areas throughout the world are now experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks and taking action that may limit traveler mobility, including quarantines and border restrictions,” the advisory said.
The World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic on Wednesday as the agency said it had infected more than 113,000 people worldwide and killed more than 4,000. Infections in the U.S. continue to grow, prompting dramatic measures in some states with community outbreaks, including the closure of college campuses and some bans on large gatherings.
“Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a news conference on Wednesday. “It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death.”
Trump has so far declined to issue a national emergency declaration over the coronavirus outbreak. Democratic senators are preparing to ask the White House to do so, according to CNN, which would allow the U.S. government to use funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to assist local governments with the virus. But Politico reported Wednesday that the president is worried that doing so would stoke panic and impede the administration’s efforts to bolster wild financial markets.
Wall Street plunged into a bear market as the outbreak was declared a pandemic, down nearly 20 per cent since the stock market’s high in February.
The president has repeatedly pushed back against criticism that his administration has been slow to respond to the outbreak. During a meeting with banking leaders on Wednesday, he dismissed a reporter’s question on such concerns as “fake news” and declined to answer.
“From the beginning of time, nations and people have faced unforeseen challenges, including large-scale and very dangerous health threats.”
The president has also consistently downplayed the threat of the virus, rejecting assertions that there weren’t enough kits for every American to get tested and comparing the death rate of the seasonal flu with the coronavirus in a way critics said was misleading to the public about its severity.
Trump didn’t mention testing much on Wednesday but said health insurance companies had agreed to waive co-payments for coronavirus testing, but he said, apparently in error, that that change would also apply to treatments. A spokesperson for America’s Health Insurance Plans, a major industry lobby, clarified to Politico that it had not agreed to waive co-payments for treatments but would for testing.
The president again suggested Wednesday that the threat of the virus could be overstated.
“From the beginning of time, nations and people have faced unforeseen challenges, including large-scale and very dangerous health threats,” he said. “This is the way it always was, and always will be. We are responding with great speed and professionalism.”
Could get worse before it gets better
Health officials have routinely pushed back against such assertions. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious diseases expert, predicted Tuesday that the outbreak would only get worse before it got better.
“We must be much more serious as a country about what we might expect,” Fauci told House lawmakers this week. “We cannot look at it and say, ‘Well, there are only a couple of cases here, that’s good.’ Because a couple of cases today are going to be many, many cases tomorrow.”
Others have been more stark. German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned her country that two in three Germans may become infected before the virus runs its course, saying it was important to follow government restrictions and take public health warnings to heart.
“This is putting our solidarity, our common sense and our openheartedness for one another to the test,” she said. “I hope that we will pass it.”
With files from Nina Golgowski