There are a lot of very anxious Americans at the moment.
The new coronavirus that has created chaos in other countries has found its way across the Atlantic and Pacific and hit our shores.
To date, we only have scattered cases— a minuscule number, really, when compared to all those Americans who come down with the flu in an average year.
And yet there is a certain sense of panic among many of us — perhaps because at the moment there is no vaccine to stop this disease and no pill that will make it instantly go away.
All we really know is that it is highly contagious, the elderly and those with underlying health conditions (diabetes, heart disease and the like) are most at risk, and the potential for many to die is real.
And so we hoard extra cans of food and toilet paper just in case we have to quarantine, try to stay away from crowds, and follow advice to be scrupulous about hand washing.
These are indeed strange times.
Add onto this the not-so-great health of the until recently robust U.S. stock market — shaken by concerns about damaged international supply chains, a dive in oil prices, and the toll that an epidemic might take on everything from airlines to attendance at athletic events. There is even talk of a possible economic recession.
And what is President Trump doing in the midst of all of this? Well, on the day the New York Stock Exchange took its biggest point plunge in history, he was wrapping up a long weekend at his Florida resort by attending a couple of campaign fundraisers.
He was also tweeting:
“…last year 37,000 Americans died from the common flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life and the economy go on. At this moment, there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
And as for the market crash:
“Saudi Arabia and Russia are arguing over the price and flow of oil. That, and the Fake News, is the reason for the market drop.”
This, after a series of public appearances in which he said the situation is under control… a vaccine for this new disease will be ready soon… and the Obama administration (which left office three years ago) is responsible for the current shortage of coronavirus test kits.
This is the way Donald Trump works. Denial… distraction… and then throwing blame on someone or something else.
It has been an effective tactic for him in the past — just ask all those supporters who line up for hours to attend his rallies.
But this time may be different.
Michael Mina — an epidemiologist at Harvard University — told The New Yorker: “He can say all the words he wants, but that won’t change the biology of this virus, which will spread unabated unless we take the proper steps.”
A contagious disease with no cure is not a foe that responds to the president’s favorite weapons of power. As veteran White House reporter Peter Baker wrote in an analysis for the New York Times: “It cannot be cowed by Twitter posts, it cannot be shot down by drones, it cannot be overcome by party solidarity, it cannot be overpowered by campaign rally chants.”
This is not a human foe. And Trump — who cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control, and did away with the White House office in charge of handling possible pandemics — is facing a leadership challenge the likes of which he has never encountered before.
He is more comfortable addressing economic matters than those involving life and death… and America is looking for answers to both.
Upon his return from Florida — as the number of coronavirus cases continued to rise, and investors were still reeling from that historic stock market decline — Trump offered some fiscal relief. He said he would be meeting with congressional Republican leaders to talk about measures like a temporary cut in payroll taxes.
“We’re taking care of the American public and we will be taking care of the American public,” he said.
This, from a president who has consistently tried to downplay the dangers of the disease formally known as COVID-19, even overruling government health officials who wanted to urge senior citizens and others at high risk to refrain from flying on commercial airlines.
Polls show his political base is continuing to buy his message. In one national survey, 35 percent of Republicans said they are “very or somewhat concerned” about the coronavirus, compared to 68 percent of Democrats..
The irony is Donald Trump’s base tends to skew older — the very group most endangered by COVID-19.
Now, to be fair, a president can’t single-handedly reverse an emergency like this. But what he or she can do is put politics aside and govern with a combination of empathy and straight talk.
Maybe that is why a picture from two years ago is once again making the rounds on social media. It shows Joe Biden stopping to speak to a homeless man outside a Washington, D.C. movie theatre and offer some help.
There were no aides around, no members of the media. A passerby took the photo which found its way onto the POLITICO website and eventually to Facebook and Twitter.
It’s a small thing, some would say. But it shows a certain sense of compassion that many Americans —faced with the dual unknowns of a dreaded disease and fiscal volatility — may be yearning for.
Perhaps there is a lesson here for the current president. We need more than bluster and blame. We need someone with a sense of humanity… someone who can put his own ego aside and feel another person’s pain.