Coronavirus spotlights our dangerous lack of leadership
WASHINGTON >> Was it the news that Tom Hanks, someone as familiar as a next-door neighbor, tested positive for coronavirus? Was it the NBA suspending its season, or the NCAA’s decision to cancel the March Madness tournament? Was it the World Health Organization’s official designation of the outbreak as a global pandemic? Was it President Trump’s lessthan-comforting prime-time address to the nation, which seemed more about vague xenophobia than concrete solutions?
Whatever the trigger, the threat posed by coronavirus no longer feels theoretical in the least. It is real. And the one medicine that could calm worried citizens and jittery markets — good, solid information — is in shockingly short supply.
Like millions of Americans, I’m working from home. My refrigerator and cupboards are wellstocked. I’ve been washing my hands like crazy, I greet people with nods of the head rather than risk physical contact, I’m avoiding crowds — and somehow none of this seems adequate. I feel uneasy because we’re being given no reliable sense of what comes next.
When the history of the failed U.S. response to this virulent new pathogen is written, the unbelievable lack of testing will be seen as the original sin. As of Thursday, as few as 10,000 individuals across this country had been tested for the virus. By contrast, South Korea — where new infections are tapering off — has been able to test more than 10,000 people per day.
Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, know that they have the virus, and are receiving appropriate treatment, because they happened to be in Australia when they came down with flu-like symptoms. There, testing for coronavirus is free and widely available. When the tests came back positive, mandated protocols were followed. They were put into isolation and are receiving necessary care.
What could they have done if they’d come down with those same symptoms here at home? Not much at all.
Here, testing is not free — though major health insurers have agreed to waive co-pays, according to Trump — and generally not available, period. There are still nowhere near enough test kits available. Administration officials keep saying this situation will soon change, but for now Americans are left ignorant and vulnerable.
The official advice right now, if you come down with symptoms such as fever and a cough, is to call your doctor. Why make a phone call rather than just go to the doctor’s office? Because the doctor can’t test you and thus can’t give a definitive answer. If you don’t have coronavirus, which is likely, it will have been a waste of time and effort for both you and the doctor. If you do have it, the unavailability of test kits means you won’t be able to find out — and you may inadvertently transmit the virus to others in the waiting room.
This epidemic has revealed serious deficiencies in a health system that delivers some of the most advanced care in the world yet also does not cover millions of Americans. I wouldn’t be surprised if nations with better testing soon began imposing travel bans against those coming from the United States.
The measures that Trump announced Wednesday were not unreasonable. Europe is the “hot zone” of new infections, at this point — but somehow he managed to make many people feel more anxious, not less. To me, it was both typical of Trump and deeply unsettling that he tried so hard to portray coronavirus as a foreign threat. Wherever it came from, the virus is here. Further efforts to keep it out, even if epidemiologically sound, seem beside the point.
I’m not the only one less than reassured by Trump’s address. On Thursday, the stock markets plunged violently enough to flip a “circuit breaker” that halts trading for 15 minutes to give everyone a breather. It was the second such emergency halt this week.
Will our lives be disrupted for a few weeks? A few months? Longer? Will we somehow have a presidential campaign without crowds? Capable leadership would be giving us some answers, or at least telling us when answers may come. Unfortunately for the nation and world, we have no such leadership now.
Capable leadership would be giving us some answers. Unfortunately for the nation and world, we have no such leadership now.