In mid-March, I was supposed to attend a conference in northern Iraq near the border with Iran, which is one of the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus outside China. No surprise, the conference was canceled.
Across that border, at least 194 Iranians have died from the disease, and 6,566 are known to be infected, including a female vice president who sits right near President Hassan Rouhani at cabinet meetings. The regime’s slow response and disinformation about the spread of coronavirus (which the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps blames on a U.S. biological attack) have shaken public trust in the ayatollahs’ ability to stop it.
The trust deficit is equally glaring in the coronavirus heartland, China, where Xi Jinping’s Communist Party is passing the buck (Chinese call it “tossing the wok”) rather than confronting the political blunders that enabled this virus to explode.
Which brings us to the U.S., where disease control demands a leader who can talk frankly to Americans while deferring to his scientific experts to provide the data. Instead, President Donald Trump talks up his hunches. He views the virus as a blame-the-Democrats campaign issue.
Hopefully, the professionals at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other government health agencies can control the outbreak despite Trump’s bloviation. But, by undercutting his experts and risking coronavirus expansion, Trump is blatantly betraying the public trust.
That’s because — despite the modest number of U.S. cases and fatalities so far — the public requires straightforward and clear information delivered regularly from the White House, in order to avoid wider spread. Especially when people are unsure whether or not to fly, whether to attend large gatherings or sports events and how to ensure the safety of their children. Not everyone has the leisure to sift through the web and search reports on fatality rates or number of cases.
“We’re still operating in something of an information vacuum,” says Dr. Neil Fishman, chief medical officer of Penn Medicine in Philadelphia, “and this has fostered additional anxiety. We don’t have a full understanding of the entire spectrum of the disease.”
And gaining full understanding will take time, especially since the outbreak began in China, where the total number of infected persons is still unknown and the data may not be trustworthy. Moreover, it was
China’s rigid party control and censorship that enabled the virus to spread in the first place.
Back in the U.S., we are just (belatedly) beginning to test on a wide scale, given that preparedness was lacking. (Former national security adviser John Bolton eliminated the White House health security team responsible for preparing for pandemics.)
Until we know more, it is crucial to have a president who treats the public with respect, letting the experts provide the details regularly to the public. Moreover, in this case even the expert-allergic Trump had to pull together a group of top scientists.
But, Trump just cannot resist contradicting the scientists and treating the epidemic like a campaign prop.
Thus we have the president and allies weaponizing the virus by blaming the Democrats for exaggerating the threat for political reasons. We have Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) promoting the Iran-worthy conspiracy theory that the virus is a Chinese bioweapon. And we have Trump telling Fox host Sean Hannity that, according to “his hunch,” the World Health Organization’s assessment of the current global death rate from the virus as 3.4% is “a false number” and he thinks the real number “is way under 1%.”
In truth, the president’s “hunches” — which no doubt come from briefings he did take — might turn out to be correct in the long term. But that will depend on how many people actually contract the virus and how well the world contains it. That is information we do not have now.
A responsible leader could have said (correctly) that the 3.4% fatality rate is factually based on around 113,000 cases, and around 3,900 deaths as currently reported worldwide. The virus will not bring Armageddon, and appears mainly to threaten the elderly, especially those with compromised health. Moreover, the fatality rate may ultimately turn out to resemble that from a severe seasonal flu, below 1%, as hypothesized in a recent journal article by Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and part of the White House coronavirus team.
But Fauci also said this week that coronavirus could become “one of those things we look back on and say boy, that was bad.” It all depends on how the administration handles the epidemic, how soon the U.S. can test broadly, and whether the White House encourages an effective public response by offering honest information.
By shooting his mouth off and ignoring his experts, Trump undermines trust among much of the public, while encouraging his devoted followers to be careless.
We are not China. We are not Iran. There is no excuse for blowing the public trust on this one, and if he does, Trump will pay at the polls later this year.