On Tuesday, Nancy Messonier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, one of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned that Americans can expect to see the COVID-19 coronavirus spread within the United States, and that “disruption to everyday life may be severe.“ Messonier acknowledged in a press briefing, “This whole situation may seem overwhelming,” before revealing that she had been warning her own children that they needed to prepare for what’s coming. “Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country. It’s not so much a question of if this will happen any more, but rather more exactly when this will happen, and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”
But at the same time, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf was on Capitol Hill telling senators that 2019 novel coronavirus is no worse than flu. National Economic Council chairman Larry Kudlow was claiming that the U.S. had the infection contained “air tight” in an attempt to reassure a shaky stock market. And Donald Trump was in India simply lying about the number of cases already in the United States. Meanwhile, the right-wing media is either describing COVID-19 as “no worse than the common cold” or insisting that it came from a Chinese bioweapons lab.
And all of that misinformation is going to get people killed. A lot of people.
As of Tuesday afternoon, there are 51 active cases of COVID-19 that have been confirmed by laboratory testing in the United States. That includes four diagnosed in the last 24 hours. All but two of these cases were contracted overseas. There are currently no statistics or direct evidence to show that the new coronavirus is “in the wild” in the U.S. population. However, that’s a situation that is extremely unlikely to last.
Returning again to Dr. Messonnier: “Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country. It’s not so much a question of if this will happen any more, but rather exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.” Pretending that the virus is not going to infect many Americans, cause a number of deaths, and generate a massive impact felt in every area of life is not just irresponsible—it’s extremely dangerous.
For weeks, Trump has been pushing officials to downplay COVID-19, not because of any data showing that the nation wasn’t at risk, but because of concerns that providing accurate advice might affect the stock market and damage his chances of reelection. Meanwhile, even with Kudlow’s desperate efforts to make the whole thing go away, the situation has now reached the point at which attempts to hide the truth are making investors actively more nervous, and carrying the market down quickly for another day. Even the plan the White House announced to seek funding for the same CDC whose budget Trump earlier slashed seems to be a naked attempt to prop up the markets rather than actually protect human beings. And now that all that has failed, Trump is blaming the plunging markets on Bernie Sanders rather than on inadequate preparation and contradictory messaging.
As the Trump White House is downplaying the possibility of COVID-19 within the United States, the media is making it worse with the continuous comparisons of the coronavirus to “an ordinary cold” or “the seasonal flu.” Yes it is absolutely true that the flu infects tens of millions of Americans and results in tens of thousands of deaths each year, but the people—such as Wolf—who are comparing the case fatality of flu and that of coronavirus are way off. By an order of magnitude and then some.
Right-wing media is also not missing this opportunity to double down on xenophobia, and in particular to stretch beyond the usual focus on Latinos and Muslims to stir up some good old-fashioned hatred of Asians. That covers everything from using this as another asinine reason to “build that wall,” to rants about the dangers of “Asian food,” to attacks on the Shen Yun dance troupe. Because when you’re a Trumpist, racism is always the answer.
Meanwhile, the CDC also acknowledge that the test kits they have been producing are flawed and that the number of test kits available for the entire United States at the moment is in the hundreds. They’re working to correct this, but that means that there is absolutely no way that someone walking into a clinic right now, either in Sheboygan or in New York City’s finest hospital, is getting tested for COVID-19. Thousands of people are under observation (not quarantine) because they either visited China or came in contact with someone who has since been diagnosed. But these people have not been tested.
It is possible that the United States may yet avoid a widespread outbreak of COVID-19. However, it is increasingly unlikely. And officials who are downplaying the disruption that will result as the nation grapples with the results of this virus are misleading Americans about what’s coming and what they need to do to prepare.
They are also sending a signal that the White House is woefully unprepared to deal with a problem that can’t be resolved by a random flight of missiles, a trillion-dollar tax break, or screaming tweets from the executive toilet. What the nation desperately needs is not loyalty to Trump, not dedication to conservative principles, and not experience as a talking head on Fox. It needs a demonstration of competence—competence of the sort that Trump has driven from the White House with everything short of a whip.
That stock market crash doesn’t belong to Bernie. It’s all Trump’s. And it’s just a sign of things to come.