The coronavirus pandemic is already well entrenched on American soil. With more than a thousand diagnosed cases across 42 states and the District of Columbia — and probably many, many more undiagnosed patients yet to be tallied — it’s clear that the virus is here inside our borders and spreading within our communities.
That’s why it’s perplexing that the president of the United States would choose this week to announce a ban on travel from 26 European countries as the centerpiece of his administration’s response to the public health and economic crisis underway. At a time when we should have a leader in the White House equipped to respond and reassure the nation, the markets, and the world, Trump’s announcement on Wednesday night took European leaders by surprise and distracted Americans from the real work that must be done to mitigate the spread of the virus in the United States. It also sent a harmful message to countries around the world that the US president, instead of being poised to collaborate to fight the pandemic across borders, views it as a foreign invasion.
Banning travel might have made sense in January, and it might still prevent some new cases. But what Americans need to know from the president now is what to do here at home. State and local leaders, many of whom lack direct access to the federal government’s font of scientific expertise, need direction and support for critical decisions they should be making now to stave off worst-case scenarios, including whether to call off all large events, when to shut down schools, and how to shore up their hospitals and health care systems. The vacuum of leadership in the White House has forced many to read between the lines of statements from federal infectious disease experts like Anthony Fauci at the National Institutes of Health, who testified this week that Americans should avoid large gatherings and who has been subtly contradicting the president’s blind denial in order to warn us that the worst of this epidemic is yet to come.
Trump sees the current crisis as “a global war not a global pandemic," Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security and a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School, told the Globe Thursday. Calling Covid-19 “a foreign virus” and targeting travel from Europe, Kayyem says, is an “incomprehensible priority" at this stage of the pandemic. It’s not that it won’t make any difference, but it turns our attention away from the real challenge.
Given Trump’s track record with science-based policy and with this epidemic, it should come as little surprise that he still fails to grasp the nature and scope of the current catastrophe and is still failing the country with his administration’s response. In late January, the president was reassuring the nation that it was just “one person coming in from China,” that all was under control, and that we would not have an outbreak in the United States. By late February, when it was clear to the government’s own experts that an epidemic in the United States was emerging, he was still claiming that the number of people infected in the country was going down instead of rising. His primary goal, it seems, has been to keep the stock market up in an election year, but even on that measure he has epically failed: His equivocation, contradiction of science, and denial have made it clear to Wall Street that he can’t be trusted at the wheel. His presidency will long be known for ending an 11-year bull run in the stock market in precipitous and calamitous fashion because of a foreseeable disaster he did little to prevent.
Imagine a president who could respond to this global crisis in a way that would incite action, allay fear, and bring Americans and the world community together to tackle the pandemic and do their part in service of the greater good. Whatever or whoever comes to mind, it’s probably far from the person who spoke from the Oval Office on Wednesday night. It’s too late to close borders. Our attention needs to turn to the dysfunction within.
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