As the deadly coronavirus continues to sweep across the globe, the White House is taking the extraordinary step of combating the issue by wishing it away.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday that a person in California is the first case of someone in the U.S. who has contracted the virus despite no international travel history or known contact with a sick person. On Friday, a second person in California was diagnosed with the virus, also with no known link between the new patient and anyone else diagnosed. The number of cases in the U.S. stands at 60, with more than 81,000 global cases of the virus across 38 countries. Roughly 3,000 people have died.
Uncertainty surrounding the rapid spread of the virus prompted the World Health Organization on Friday to raise its assessment of the outbreak from a “high” to “very high” global risk.
“This is a reality check for every government on the planet,” Dr. Michael J. Ryan, deputy director of WHO’s health emergency program, told The New York Times. “Wake up. Get ready. This virus may be on its way.”
Despite the growing alarm, the White House has significantly downplayed the virus and any efforts to stop its spread. And that isn’t because President Donald Trump and his officials are simply hoping to respond calmly to quell potential panic, but because of hubris and incompetence that could very well exacerbate an already troubling situation.
“It’s going to disappear,” Trump said of the coronavirus on Thursday. “One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
Earlier in the week, Trump tapped Vice President Mike Pence to lead the country’s response to the virus. Pence’s history with public health crises is best represented by the role he played in an HIV outbreak while he was governor of Indiana.
The stock market plunged once again on Friday in response to the global outbreak, making it the worst week for Wall Street since 2008. But Trump appears to be more concerned about keeping stocks high than he does about a public health crisis. Earlier in the week, Trump tweeted reassurance the the virus was “under control” and the stock market was “starting to look very good to me!” days before it suffered another big loss.
It’s also difficult to take the president at his word following a New York Times report that the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told colleagues he had been told by the White House not to speak to the press about the virus without first clearing it with administration officials. It will be Pence, instead, who will control messaging around the escalating situation.
And despite being the point man on this crisis, Pence spent Friday in Florida at a fundraiser where dinner was $25,000 a person, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
What is clear is that the government’s response so far has been haphazard and inadequate. Earlier in February, Trump officials dismissed warnings from the CDC and allowed infected Americans in Japan to fly back to the U.S. on a plane with uninfected passengers, potentially aiding the virus’s spread.
Meanwhile, the rollout of coronavirus testing in the U.S. has been a “fiasco,” in the words of the respected journal Science, due to a faulty component in the approved test and bureaucratic hang-ups ― the CDC had conducted only 459 tests nationwide as of Friday. At least one potential case has been reported, in Brooklyn, New York, where the CDC refused to test a symptomatic person who had just traveled to Japan, even after the hospital requested it. (It is still not known whether the person actually has the virus.)
Perhaps most disturbing is a government whistleblower who alleged on Thursday that Health and Human Services staffers interacted with Americans who were quarantined for potential exposure to the virus without protective gear or proper medical training.
Despite these clear lapses in handling the situation, Trump’s yes men have rallied behind the president. Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney falsely claimed the media is covering the outbreak only because it’s “all about” damaging Trump. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to say that the coronavirus is not a hoax. And Donald Trump Jr. took a truly large leap in logic when he falsely claimed Democrats are hoping the potential pandemic spreads simply because it would hurt his father’s reelection chances.
His father repeated the claim later Friday evening at a campaign rally in South Carolina.
“The Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus,” Trump lied, adding that the coronavirus is “their new hoax.”
Trump loyalists can put their blind faith in a president who has spent the past two years slashing the budgets of government agencies responsible for responding to the outbreak. But it’s difficult for the president to instill confidence in most anyone else when he goes out of his way to deny evidence and brush aside a growing threat. Look no further than comments he made to the press on Friday, in which he sought to assure the public that his administration was prepared for the difficult task ahead:
“We’re ordering a lot of supplies,” he said. “We’re ordering a lot of, uh, lot of elements that frankly we wouldn’t be ordering unless it was something like this. But we’re ordering a lot of different elements of medical.”