President Donald Trump has finally gotten semi-serious about the coronavirus.
But he’s still spinning falsehoods about crucial details, like the inexcusable U.S. failure on testing for the virus. And he’s ignored critical lessons from other countries about what works or doesn’t in containing its spread.
China, with its draconian quarantines, claims its authoritarian system has worked best, which isn’t the case (more on that below). But a shocking failure of White House leadership has put the United States behind the eight ball in dealing with the pandemic.
The most interesting case of a large democracy — and close U.S. ally — that appears to have gotten the response right, so far, is South Korea. And Seoul’s successes cast a bright light on where the White House has gone wrong.
Before focusing on Seoul, a few words about the way Beijing and Washington mishandled the epidemic.
“The advantages of the Chinese system,” crowed the Communist Party’s People’s Daily on March 4, “have once again been demonstrated since the outbreak of the coronavirus.” In fact, China’s tight political controls muzzled whistleblowers. Fearful bureaucrats failed to report cases of human transition to Beijing and permitted the disease to spread widely.
More recently, China implemented harsh lockdowns in affected cities and a province of more than 60 million people. This slowed the spread of the disease, although it came far too late to stop it. Yet it also exacted a terrible human cost and could never be replicated in democratic countries. (Note that the “containment area” that New York state has established for two weeks around the city of New Rochelle, where a cluster of cases has emerged, shuts schools and large gathering places, but doesn’t stop freedom of movement of healthy people.)
However, I was told by Thomas Bollyky, director of the Global Health Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, that “people are taking the wrong lesson from China.” He argues that “social distancing is proving to be most effective, even in China, such as suspending public transport, gatherings and closing schools.”
Social distancing, he says, “is what we should be doing in the United States.”
Yet, until late last week, the White House was totally cavalier about “social distancing,” including the cancellation of political rallies and sports events. And a reactive president has yet to give the country, let alone struggling state and city governments, any clear guidelines to follow on such distancing.
In Trump’s speech to the nation on the pandemic Wednesday night, his focus was on banning Europeans from entering the country — without any prior warning to allied leaders — a move that suits his claim that the virus is “foreign” and his penchant for finding enemies to blame.
But some health experts say this travel ban — unlike the earlier ban on travelers from China — is too late to be useful since the virus has already spread. “Poor use of time and energy,” tweeted Trump’s former homeland security adviser Thomas Bossert.
What Bossert recommended instead, and what many state governors are begging for, are immediate measures to halt community spread — especially testing. Widespread testing reveals where infections are centered, and permits medical personnel to focus there.
Trump continues to insist that “testing is going smoothly” even though his own experts admit the testing process is failing, and kits are still unavailable where badly needed.
Which brings us to South Korea, a country of 51 million people, which is testing around 15,000 citizens each day, at clinics and drive-through stations. This is more than the entire number the United States has tested until now.
So why has Seoul’s democracy been able to do what the United States has not?
The answer is better national leadership, better advance planning and speed.
“They were very quick in getting test kits up, due to their experience with MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) five years ago,” said Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. The country created a system to permit rapid approval of testing kits for viruses that might cause pandemics.
Compare that with the United States, where in 2018, the Trump administration shut down the White House office responsible for leading any U.S. response to a deadly pandemic.
Moreover, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, whose early handling of the virus was lacking, soon turned the country’s response over to top Korean public health experts. “They’ve really taken the lead from the president,” said Snyder (in comparison with Trump’s constant contradicting of his experts).
As a result, 210,000 South Koreans have been tested; although there were 7,500 infections at this writing, the mortality rate is lower than average. Civil society has pitched in, encouraged by the government, with voluntary social distancing.
The South Korea story proves that a democracy whose leadership sends its public a clear, honest message has a chance for a reasonable outcome.
South Korea is exporting its test kits to China and Europe. Maybe it’s time for Washington to place an order. At minimum, Trump should stop spinning and rally U.S. resources to test hundreds of thousands of Americans — now.