Opinion

The disastrous coronavirus leadership void

Leaders will be required to get America through this long coronavirus winter. And leaders are in short supply.

President Trump's refusal to concede the election is starting to take on a very "Nero fiddles while Rome burns" feel. While Trump sits in the White House, tweeting rage and lies about his loss to President-elect Joe Biden, the COVID-19 pandemic has reached its most dangerous point yet.

The United States on Thursday broke its daily record for new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. The country is experiencing more than 1,000 deaths per day. Yes, there was good news on the vaccine front this week — but that will be distributed too late for the countless Americans who will get sick and die in the coming days and weeks.

This is a disaster. And it was foreseen.

For months now, public health experts have been warning that the winter of 2020 would produce a particularly dangerous and deadly phase of the coronavirus pandemic — that indoor gathering and holiday celebrations could give birth to a new wave of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths.

"We're in a precarious position over the next several weeks to months," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious diseases expert, said last month. He was right. The deadly winter he warned about is upon us.

Can anything be done?

All the same advice you've been hearing for the last eight months still applies — wear a mask when you leave the house and avoid large gatherings, especially indoors. If you're thinking of having a big Thanksgiving get-together with family and friends, don't. Please, just don't.

More than individual initiative is needed, though. Leadership is required. But it doesn't appear Americans are going to get much of that. The president has made no public mention of the pandemic this week, preferring to plot improbable scenarios for remaining in office. His vice president — the ostensible head of the White House coronavirus task force — planned to take a vacation this week, but called it off. By now, though, the country has mostly learned to stop expecting much guidance from a president whose Election Night party turned into yet another one of his superspreader events. Biden has vowed to be more proactive, but until he actually takes office the only power he has is to plead with Americans to wear masks.

State leadership is hit-or-miss, too. Some states are led by Republicans like Gov. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) who proudly refuses to issue a mask mandate or mass-gathering restrictions, even as her state sets new records for confirmed cases. In other states, like Michigan and Texas, state and local officials have been undermined by courts that have knocked down emergency quarantine orders. And scientific illiteracy is not exclusively a Republican problem. In New York City, Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio has frustrated parents by shutting down schools in COVID-19 hot spots while allowing restaurants and gyms to remain open in those same neighborhoods. Similarly, in Chicago, some observers have been perplexed and angered by Mayor Lori Lightfoot's policies that have kept the city's beaches closed while allowing bars to open. While some state and local officials are rising to the occasion by issuing new lockdown orders, it seems dubious a national crisis will be solved with such a patchwork approach.

This leaves Congress as perhaps the only short-term option.

In the absence of a lockdown or mask mandate, one thing that could help slow the spread of COVID-19 this winter is money. Give money to workers to let them stay home again, if they can, so they don't risk spreading or contracting the coronavirus. Money to owners of restaurants, bars, and retail businesses so they can afford to shut down instead of staying open as potential spreading points for both workers and customers.

This cash has been needed for months. Congress passed a big spending bill early in the pandemic precisely so workers and businesses could afford to survive the initial shutdowns. The program was successful — millions of Americans were spared falling into poverty even as the economy cratered. The Democratic-led House and GOP-run Senate never got together to pass a follow-up bill.

Now is the time to get it done.

But prospects are bleak. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) wants Congress to pass a $2.2 trillion bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) prefers something closer to $500 billion. It is the same divide that has stopped progress on a bill for months now.

If there is good news, it's this: McConnell has signaled he wants to pass something, which isn't always the case. "We need another rescue package," he said last week.

Pelosi is right to ask for a lot of money to throw at this problem, but as long as Republicans hold the Senate she's not going to get it. So Democrats should take whatever they can get from McConnell at this point, and very loudly promise to do more in January — if Georgia voters give them control of the Senate via the two runoff races in that state. It's a gamble, but one that seems to have little downside; Republicans probably won't raise the stimulus pricetag if they keep the Senate, anyway. In that scenario, a smaller stimulus now isn't any worse than a small stimulus later.

What all of this means, though, is that the best Americans can expect over the next two months — before Biden's inauguration — probably is just a half-baked, underfunded approach to addressing a national health and economic disaster. But even a bad bill would be a sign that America's leaders are willing and able to do something to fix this mess. Right now, that would count as an improvement.

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