Column: Enough with the coronavirus recriminations. Both parties need to stop the blame and solve the crisis
OK, we can all agree. Egregious mistakes were made and many people are dying needlessly as a result.
But who made those mistakes is a matter of dispute. The left blames the right, the right blames China and the World Health Organization. Governors blame the president, and he blames them right back.
Eventually, those leaders who failed to respond forcefully to the virus will be called to account. But now is absolutely the wrong moment for finger-pointing and blame-shifting.
We’re deep in the throes of an unprecedented national emergency and we have plenty to do to pull ourselves out of it. With thousands of Americans dying of the virus each week, this is the time for leaders across the country to send clear, focused, forward-looking messages providing accurate information about how many people have been tested, are sick and have died, and explaining exactly what is being asked of us and why changing our behavior is so important. We need more testing, more protective gear, more medical equipment, and we need our leaders to pull together regardless of their party. An obsessive focus on blame is an unwelcome and unhealthy distraction.
President Trump, not surprisingly, is the worst offender. At his circus-like daily press briefings he flails around inarticulately, ceaselessly praising his own actions and attacking those of others. On Monday, he actually said: “Everything we did was right,” even as the number of dead in the U.S. climbed above 23,000. The following day, he announced theatrically that he was cutting U.S. funding for the World Health Organization in the middle of the crisis for “severely mismanaging and covering up” the COVID-19 crisis and putting “political correctness above lifesaving.”
There may be some truth to his accusations. WHO was certainly deferential to China, perhaps too much so, and may have gullibly accepted that country’s early reassurances about the virus. And there is no doubt it would have been better if the agency had declared a global emergency a week or so earlier. Early mistakes may have led to a slower and weaker response around the world and a boom in infections. Ultimately we will want to know whether the 72-year-old organization did everything it could have or whether it made mistakes through ignorance, political correctness or the fog of misinformation. We will need to examine those missteps in order to prevent similar ones going forward.
But why are we hearing about it just now? Why is the United States suddenly withholding its funding from the organization? For one reason only: Because Trump is ginning up false outrage in a desperate effort to rewrite the narrative he fears may destroy him in November. He’s determined to come off as the nation’s resolute and all-seeing savior — the check-signer-in-chief, the voice of reason, the provider of ventilators, the man who “calls the shots” — and that means he needs someone to blame for any problems.
But it’s not just Trump politicizing the pandemic. A new analysis by two epidemiologists suggests that if social distancing had been in place two weeks earlier in the United States, as many as 90% of the lives lost to COVID-19 could have been saved. And Democrats naturally see this as the moment to blame the president for letting the situation spiral out of control.
“The truth is that in January, Donald Trump was warned about this pandemic, ignored those warnings, took insufficient action and caused unnecessary death and disaster,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday.
It’s not that she’s wrong. Repeated news stories have documented that Trump was slow off the mark and in fact did many of the same things he is now accusing WHO of doing. But again, it is hard to see how Pelosi’s line of attack helps us out of the mess we’re in.
Other than a handful of doctors and scientists, did anyone in government acquit themselves brilliantly in the early days of the pandemic? Many officials had to be educated about the nature of the threat and certainly needed substantial persuasion before they agreed to order dramatic changes in people’s behavior that would infringe on personal liberty and cause enormous economic damage.
Even New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has become, in the eyes of many Democrats, the anti-Trump — trustworthy, transparent and reassuring — didn’t implement aggressive stay-at-home measures until March 20. Thomas Frieden, the former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has estimated that if social distancing rules had been put in place in New York just a week or two earlier, 50% to 80% of the deaths in that city could have been avoided.
There will be years of studies and reports and analyses, and more than enough second-guessing and Monday morning quarterbacking. Undoubtedly the November elections will be won or lost on the basis of our how candidates responded to the crisis — or failed to. And that will be entirely appropriate.
But the cynical finger-pointing, the deflection of responsibility, the politicization of a dreadfully serious pandemic is not right, and it’s certainly not right at this moment. Our leaders need to keep their focus on getting us through the pandemic and beyond. Later we can go back to the recriminations.
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