The response from medical experts to the president’s irresponsible rhetoric this week about “reopening” the country has been overwhelmingly negative:
“That is exactly the wrong thing to do,” Dr. Howard Markel, a noted medical historian at the University of Michigan, wrote NPR in an email. “Cases would go up and so would deaths…we now need to stay the course!”
The president is promoting false hope that things can get back more or less to where they were in just a few weeks. His statement that he wants the country to be “opened up and just raring to go by Easter” is either one of the most delusional things he has ever said or one of the most cynical, because there is absolutely no chance of this. The worst of the outbreak is still to come in every state, and there is no question of letting our guard down so early. To adapt a Churchill quote, this is not even the beginning of the beginning, and Trump already wants to throw in the towel.
It is reckless, wrong, and if any state and local governments follow the president’s lead on this it will be fatal for many people. We are fortunate that we have a federal system that entrusts many of the most important decisions to state and local officials, because if it were up to this president we would be in much greater danger. Trump is offering the country a false choice between getting the outbreak under control and economic growth. There won’t be anything like normal economic activity as long as the pandemic spreads across the country, and thanks to the government’s early failures we are not remotely close to contemplating a loosening of restrictions. Until there is widespread testing that can identify where the virus is spreading, it is premature in the extreme to talk about reducing restrictions designed to limit that spread.
Perhaps if the U.S. had gotten a handle on the problem from the start as South Korea did, it would be a different story, but we didn’t. That doesn’t mean that the U.S. has to suffer the worst-case scenario of economic cataclysm, but averting that outcome depends on swift and extraordinary efforts by the federal government to support workers and businesses until the crisis has passed. That will mean appropriating trillions of dollars to support the economy until normal business can resume. The government needs to act as a guarantor of last resort to keep people afloat in the midst of this disaster. Another part of the federal government’s role is mobilizing factories to produce the essential protective equipment and ventilators that hospitals all over the country desperately need and currently lack. Trump’s failure here is manifold: he is not pushing for the critical relief that people need to make it through the current shutdown, he is failing to use the emergency authority that he possesses to mobilize production of vital equipment, and he is undermining the campaign to bring the outbreak under control with his deranged happy talk about everything being over by Easter.
It needs to be emphasized that the president’s irresponsible rhetoric this week is absolutely wrong and harmful. A CNBC report quotes another expert:
Medical experts quickly recoiled at Trump’s suggestion that Americans could gather en masse amid the coronavirus outbreak.
“Obviously Trump is not rooted in reality,” said Dr. Tina Tan, a board member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America and a staff member at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
“This is the making of a major public health disaster. I am not sure where he is getting his information from, but it is extremely flawed,” Tan said.
The specialists quoted in The New York Times’ report were even more blunt:
But if people are told they can head back to work, commuting by bus or subway while thousands of new infections are confirmed each day, “the virus will surge, many will fall ill and there will be more deaths,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a preventive medicine expert at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
Amir Attaran, a professor of law and medicine at the University of Ottawa, was even more pessimistic. “Nobody voted in Donald Trump thinking he would become a ‘one-man death panel’ empowered to dispense with American lives like cannon fodder,” he said. “It would be political suicide for him and murder for many others.”
The good news is that many state and local officials are rejecting Trump’s nonsense. Unlike the president, they take their responsibilities of protecting the public seriously, and the repudiation of his message came from governors from both parties:
Governors across the nation on Tuesday rejected President Donald Trump’s new accelerated timeline for reopening the U.S. economy, as they continued to impose more restrictions on travel and public life in an attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
The dismissal of Trump’s mid-April timeframe for a national reopening came from Republicans and Democrats, from leaders struggling to manage hot spots of the outbreak and those still bracing for the worst. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, the head of the National Governors Association and a Republican, called the messaging confusing since most leaders are still focused on enforcing the restrictions, not easing them. He accused the White House of running on a schedule made of some “imaginary clock.”
The quickest way for the U.S. to “get back to work” is to get the spread of the virus under control first. We should consider easing restrictions only when the number of cases has been reduced to almost nothing, and even then we should be cautious in how quickly those restrictions are lifted. In the meantime, the federal government needs to step up and provide relief for American workers and businesses that cannot survive without that support.