Coro­n­avirus spot­lights our dan­ger­ous lack of lead­er­ship

Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - OPINION - Eu­gene Robinson

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.

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