Trump agrees to another month of distancing
The United States became the global epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic this week, as case numbers soared across the nation and federal health officials warned that as many as 240,000 Americans could die even under a best-case scenario. As The Week went to press on Wednesday, more than 200,000 Americans had tested positive for the virus and over 4,600 had died, with the numbers rising exponentially. More than 1 out of 4 of the fatalities were in New York City, where hospitals were deluged with critical and dying patients, though the virus reached across every state. With over three-quarters of Americans under movement restrictions, life has ground to a halt across much of the nation, with businesses shuttered, schools and universities emptied, malls and sports stadiums dark, and mass job losses leading to record unemployment claims. President Trump, who prompted alarm last week by vowing to remove federal social-distancing guidelines by mid-April, backed off and extended the guidelines through the end of the month. “I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead,” said a notably grave Trump. “This is going to be three weeks like we’ve never seen before.”
Trump’s turnaround came after strong lobbying by coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx and health adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, who painted a grim portrait of over 2 million lives lost if social distancing ended. Political advisers and Republican allies warned Trump that he’d pay a steep political cost for a huge death toll. Despite his change of heart, Trump continued to blame states for the virus’s spread and rejected calls for the federal government to lead a coordinated national response. He boasted on Twitter that his press conferences’ “astounding” ratings exceeded those of The Bachelor.
In New York City, body bags piled up in refrigerated morgue trucks, a makeshift hospital was erected in Central Park, and exhausted frontline workers lacking proper protection were falling ill by the hundreds. (See Controversy.) Birx warned that other cities were looking at their future. “No state, no metro area will be spared,” she said.
What the editorials said
“The president has blood on his hands,” said The Boston Globe. U.S. intelligence agencies were sounding ominous warnings in January and February that the virus afflicting Wuhan, China, would reach America, but the Trump administration dithered, failing to build testing capacity, equipment stockpiles, or a crisis-management team. The president spent two months dismissing the threat, dodging responsibility, and offering callous self-interest instead of “compassion and clarity.” As the virus sweeps through the population like a scythe, Trump’s “colossal failure of leadership” is creating “untold suffering.”
To avert the worst scenarios, we need “a Marshall Plan, an Apollo mission, and a New Deal all rolled into one,” said The New York Times. And the work must start now. The federal government must create a “public works corps” that can build thousands of drive-through testing sites and help with epidemiological fieldwork like contact tracing. Tens of millions of tests need to be manufactured and distributed, so we can determine who’s infected, who’s not, and who has developed antibodies that make them immune. We must also look ahead to a “post-lockdown strategy,” said the National Review. That means considering how we can use testing, safety equipment, and hopefully, effective medical treatments “to return to economic and social activity without risking a second wave of infections.”
What the columnists said
Trump has finally “surrendered to the facts,” said Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post. After ignoring the threat, minimizing it, and floating delusional visions of “packed churches on Easter,” Trump seems to understand what he’s up against. As he spoke of death tolls this week, one could hear his fear and alarm amid the usual “bluster and bombast.”
A chastened Trump is now “drastically” moving the goalposts, said Aaron Rupar in Vox.com. A few weeks ago, he was still insisting the virus was “contained” and “like a miracle, it will disappear.” Now he asserts that if it kills only 200,000 Americans, or about 65 times the number who died on 9/11, it will be a marker that his administration has done “a very good job.” It’s a preview of the coming spin: No matter the outcome, no matter what he’d said and done previously, his “handling of the crisis was a success,” instead of an epic historical failure.
“We’re now entering the most dangerous phase of the Trump presidency,” said Peter Wehner in TheAtlantic.com. By now it’s clear Trump lacks any semblance of what we need in this unprecedented crisis: a command of the facts, strong judgment, empathy, and an ability to inspire and unite. Having blustered and bullied his way through life by imposing “his will and narrative on others,” he now faces a problem that can’t be solved with hush money, lawsuits, lies, or denial. What will happen to Trump “psychologically and emotionally” when his only toolbox fails him? We’re about to find out.
Federal guidelines on wearing protective masks may be about to change, said Erika Edwards in NBCNews.com. Until now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said there’s no reason for healthy people to wear masks, saying that regular surgical or makeshift masks—as opposed to the N95 respirators used by medical workers—don’t reliably screen out viral particles. But the CDC will soon issue new guidelines, on the grounds that such masks do offer partial protection from infection, and more importantly, can prevent people who are infected but asymptomatic from unwittingly infecting others via droplets emitted through “coughs, sneezes, even yawns or simple conversation.” Some health officials question whether most Americans will wear them, said Lena Sun and Laurie McGinley in The Washington Post. Internal CDC discussions “note that widespread public use of masks is not culturally accepted in the United States the way it is in many Asian countries.”
Cover illustration by Fred Harper.
Cover photos from Getty, AP, Media Bakery ■