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Column: We got unlucky on COVID-19. The wrong man is in charge during a once-in-a-lifetime crisis

Trump pandemic briefing
President Trump at one of his many coronavirus briefings.
(Associated Press)

At his most recent coronavirus briefing, President Trump said that determining when to reopen the country would be the most difficult decision he’d ever have to make.

He’s right. The calculations are complex, the stakes high, the tradeoffs unimaginable. He’s stuck between forcing millions of people out of their jobs and causing a downturn that could rival the Great Depression — or authorizing the deaths, possibly, of tens of thousands more people by reopening too soon.

If only such important decisions weren’t in the hands of a president so obviously unprepared and ill-equipped to make them. Not only has he repeatedly shown his disdain for science and scientists, but he is also so focused on business and Wall Street that he is likely to give disproportionate weight to the views of those who want to protect the economy over the views of those who want to save lives. He is averse to complex thinking, famously unable to concentrate on briefing books or details. He lacks empathy. He is an irresponsible decision-maker because of a lifelong tendency to trust his gut instincts over the opinions of experts.

It was hardly comforting when Trump was asked Friday what metrics he intends to use to decide when to ease up on social distancing and he responded by pointing to his head and saying, “The metric is right here. That’s my metrics. That’s all I can do.”

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To watch him at his daily coronavirus briefings is an exercise not in confidence-building, but in its opposite. It is beyond troubling — although hardly surprising — that he would use a pandemic to take cheap political digs at Democrats, to engage in idle ramblings (and make sex jokes about models!), to continue his vindictive and pointless war on the media (“I say that you’re a terrible reporter”), and to engage in the kind of blustering and preening self-promotion that is even inappropriate when he does it at a campaign rally. (He actually tweeted that the ratings for the White House news briefings were “through the roof.”) He sends mixed messages and delivers outright misinformation. (He won’t wear a mask though he half-heartedly recommends it for others? He’s going to reopen the economy by Easter? Hydroxychloroquine for all?)

It’s probably best to put his daily performances out of your mind. The only thing we should really care about is whether he will get it right. Whether he can get it right. Reopening the economy will not be like flicking a light switch. The return to normality will be long and slow, and its success will depend whether people can be confident that it is safe and healthy to be back in the world.

If the decision to reopen is made responsibly, it will be made on the basis of facts and science. It will happen only after we have the ability and capacity to widely test for both infections and antibodies, and to trace contacts so that we can identify where and how the virus is spreading. Both the strategy and the reasoning behind the decision will need to be carefully and openly explained, so we can have confidence in it. This is the president, after all, who dawdled for weeks in February and March before finally taking action to protect the public.

Furthermore, these decisions will have to be made in the context of the damage we’re inflicting on our economy, as Trump has noted. That damage is already massive, and every week of closure will deepen the misery and lengthen the time for recovery.

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These decisions aren’t up to Trump alone, of course. Mayors and governors around the country, the ones who have issued most of the social distancing orders, will have to buy in. But Trump has a lot of say — and a powerful pulpit. Many state and local leaders are likely to follow his lead.

We live in a democracy, and up to a point, we are the makers of our own mess. Years of bitterness and paralysis in Washington have led to increasing alienation on the part of voters, which, mixed with demagoguery and cynical misuse of information by some media outlets and Trump himself, left us with the wrong man in charge. And he, by dint of bad luck, has been confronted by the greatest crisis of our time. It is one that offers stark choices but no simple or satisfying answers.


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