The novel coronavirus is spreading around the globe at a remarkable pace. Mistakes have been made by leading health authorities regarding testing criteria, quality of test kits and in other ways that have delayed detection and facilitated the spread. Hopefully, all of those mistakes can be corrected relatively quickly and the lost ground made up. The news so far is not encouraging for a quick stoppage of the metastasizing disease.
Overarching in this sad story is the reality that the President of the United States is widely distrusted because of his record of relentless self-interested lying and distortion in a vast array of areas in order to perpetuate the mythology that he is the greatest president in history. Trump’s rule is to say whatever he wants to self-promote and never to admit error or apologize for demonstrable mistakes. He routinely and quite casually will say something on camera, then, faced with blowback, simply deny that he said it. He claims credit for things his administration did not do and denies responsibility, usually blaming Barack Obama, for errors he has committed.
The consequence of this reputation for dishonesty and untrustworthiness is, predictably, when a genuine crisis comes along, Trump’s reputation infects everything he does and bleeds over into the actions of administration people tasked with actually combatting the crisis. Plainly, coronavirus is such a crisis. Trump not only regularly contradicts statements of experts in the field, he insists at every turn that there really is little to worry about because he’s doing such a great job. He has even suggested that people with symptoms that could be coronavirus should report for work as usual, despite advice to the contrary from experts. Trump’s biggest fear seems to be the effect of the health emergency on his re-election hopes rather than the welfare of the tens of thousands of sick people, some of whom are going to die as many already have.
Fear of a pandemic is a real and powerful force that can easily cause people to act in self-defeating ways. Fear is spread by, among other things, distrust. One medical authority has observed that the government knew in December, 2019 that the coronavirus was going to arrive in the United States and did almost nothing to prepare. If Americans doubt the word of the authorities because they believe the president is influencing what they are being told, the fear can easily turn to panic.
That, then, is the ultimate price we may yet pay for the president’s lack of truthfulness and integrity. Those “chickens” are coming home to roost, raising questions about how much to believe in the advice being given by federal medical authorities. Based on a CNN Town Hall on the virus situation indicates that the government is still being disingenuous about the availability of test kits. Dr. Anthony Fauci says we need many millions of coronavirus tests but there is no current basis for believing that millions of tests will be available in the foreseeable future. As a result there will be no accurate evaluation of the mortality rate for the virus until a large number of tests have been completed, which may take several weeks.
There should be only one guiding principle behind the information being given to the public: truth and nothing but the truth. Many of the federal authorities involved in fighting the virus are people of unquestionable integrity but their authority will be quickly undermined if the impression arises, as it already has in some instances, that the politicians supporting Trump are tilting and filtering the information the public gets. The appointment of the Vice President to lead the U.S. response to the virus has only contributed to the impression that the administration is being less-than-candid with the public.
We already know that the virus was able to get a head start in China because, as usual, the government there did not want the news to get out and failed to act swiftly to isolate the disease. If the public in the United States comes to the conclusion that the federal government is playing that same game, we are in for really hard times.
The solution is to get the Vice President Pence out of the command-and-control position he occupies regarding the federal response and put a medically-qualified expert in charge of the counter-attack against the coronavirus. The sooner this is done, the sooner public trust and support for the necessary counter-measures will develop and be sustained.