The media has cried “wolf” many times about a whole string of natural disasters that never materialized and epidemics that fizzled out. When I first heard about the coronavirus, I thought this was another of those occasions. But the whole point of the Boy Who Cried Wolf fable is that eventually the wolf actually shows up. It now appears that COVID-19 is our wolf.
It is hard for us – hard for me, I admit – to accept that something so primitive as a viral epidemic could intrude into our comfortable, safe, modern lives and turn it all upside down. But that is happening right now, whether we choose to accept it or not. Governments across the world have quarantined entire populations. Some have gone so far as to track their infected citizens with GPS. In Italy, where the mortality rate is 5 percent, doctors are so overwhelmed that they are having to choose which patients to treat. Worldwide there have been close to 135 thousand confirmed cases and 5,000 deaths. These numbers are trending up, drastically, and medical experts warn it will get much worse before it gets better.
Here in the United States, there are over 1,300 reported cases just two weeks after President Trump reported there were 15 cases that “within a couple of days” would be “down to close to zero.” The number of reported cases is expected to grow exponentially, and those are only the reported cases. Very few Americans have been tested. In fact, we’ve tested about half as many people – total – as South Korea tests in one day.
Doctors, epidemiologists, and health organizations are warning that this virus is not like the flu. It’s deadlier (about ten times deadlier, says Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases), potentially more transmissible, can live in a patient for up to 37 days after first contact, and can move from your respiratory system to attack other vital organs. It’s not true that this is an “old person’s disease.” The mortality rate for the elderly is startlingly high, yes, but it’s 13 times higher than the flu for people in their 50s, 4 times higher in the 40s, and twice as deadly for everyone between the ages of 10 and 39. Fortunately, it seems to be sparing children. But children can still carry the disease and transmit it to their parents and grandparents.
These factors explain why organizations like the NCAA and Disney have chosen to forfeit many billions of dollars by shutting down their basketball season and theme parks, respectively. We can’t chalk this up to simple panic. Businesses don’t throw billions of dollars in the trash on an emotional whim. Meanwhile, states and towns are banning large gatherings, shuttering government buildings, closing schools, etc. Perhaps these measures will prove to be overkill. But the testimony of most experts in the field seems to rather strongly suggest that the consequence of a lack of caution would likely be much, much worse than the consequence of too much caution.
All of this to say, it’s a damn shame we have a collection of partisan hacks and useless buffoons leading us through this crisis. It was reported today that Nancy Pelosi tried to jam funding for abortion into the coronavirus economic stimulus package. Other Democrats have spent their time accusing Trump of racism for accurately reporting that the virus originated in China. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez decided that “straight up racism” is to blame for people not “patroning Chinese restaurants.” Someone let the congresswoman know that people are avoiding restaurants in general. Am I anti-Italian if I cancel my reservation at Olive Garden? Also, let her know that “patroning” isn’t a word. The Democratic governor of Washington, the state hardest hit by the virus so far, responded to a supportive call from Vice President Pence by bashing him on Twitter.
President Trump has not performed much better. After contradicting his own officials to predict the coronavirus would virtually disappear from the United States after the first 15 cases, Trump attempted desperately for days to minimize the severity of the crisis. Again contradicting the medical experts in his own administration, he insinuated that we shouldn’t be as concerned about this as we are about the regular flu. When asked about the lack of testing, he bizarrely politicized the issue by bringing the transcript of his Ukraine call into it, answering that both the tests and the call were “perfect.” It may not be entirely the Administration’s fault that our testing has lagged far behind most of the developed world, but the buck stops with Trump whether he likes it or not. And rambling about “perfect” tests doesn’t instill the American people with confidence that he understands the severity of the situation. Neither did the picture he tweeted of himself literally fiddling in the midst of a global pandemic. His address from the Oval Office was adequate at best, and that’s being generous. Banning travel from Europe is an important step, though not enough was said about domestic containment measures. But in terms of boosting national morale and uniting the country, the speech, both in content and delivery, was a dud.
Conservatives will want to make this all a story of Democrats politicizing an epidemic. Liberals will want to make it about Trump fumbling and bumbling and wasting crucial days early on downplaying the situation and whispering sweet nothings into our ears. The story is both of these things. It is ultimately a story of a dysfunctional government run by people who are not interested in coming together in a dire time to steer us toward calmer and safer waters.
This is a moment that calls for a seriousness of purpose and a disregard for political point-tallying that is beyond the capacities of the overgrown children we have elected to lead us. So, batten down the hatches. The Washington clown show isn’t saving us. Whatever happens, we’ll have to handle it the good old fashioned American way: on our own.