US-NEWS-CONGRESS-STIMULUS-SIP

The U.S. could've been much better prepared for the coronavirus but too much time was wasted on tasteless disputes.

In the midst of what’s evolving into a grimmer reality by the day, President Trump took time during last week’s press conference to defend the term “China Virus,” a reference to the COVID-19 disease sweeping the globe.  

Besides the fact that such a name goes against the rulings of the World Health Organization – while also being offensive – it’s upsetting to see that the trivial issue should have any priority during a time when nearly 8,000 people have already died. 

Yet, however tasteless the dispute, the squabble effectively uncovers a theme in the Trump Administration’s fluctuating portrayal of the pandemic. It demonstrates an unprepared White House of veering focus and aimless rambling. 

In fact, during a previous press conference, Trump’s speech was so “wide-ranging that Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Ed Markey are asking Mike Pence to explain what the president was even talking about,” said Dan Diamond, a Politico reporter speaking on NPR. He cites how, in responding to the situation, Trump compared the Center of Disease Control and Prevention’s virus-handling to his impeachment inquiry, something “that doesn’t make a lot of sense both in reflection and also in the moment.”  

Whether debating disease names, sharing his personal feelings or generally minimizing the detrimentality of the emergency as a whole, Trump’s inability to communicate clearly or endorse a consistent message has fueled a chaotic response to the pandemic. Lacking coherent information, local leaders took no chances, pursuing “aggressive measures because… it’s always safer to do more rather than less,” Diamond explained.   

Moreover, the president’s laid-back attitude influenced more than governmental decision-making.  According to NPR, while only 8% of Democrats trust Trump’s words, three-fourths of Republicans do, believing the virus to be “blown out of proportion.” That’s a percentage of people who may feel less pressured to wash their hands or practice social distancing, measures encouraged to curb infectious spread. Trump’s made it seem like the White House has the situation under control.   

Yet, the U.S. has been quite vulnerable from the start. When the coronavirus — the more vernacular term for COVID-19 — first sprung up in Wuhan, China, in November, the White House didn’t have a branch to deal with such issues.  A year prior, Trump had “fired the government’s entire pandemic-response chain of command, including the White House management staff,” as addressed in The New Yorker.

In fact, as the article highlights, “weeks after COVID-19 had been recognized as a virus with pandemic potential,the Administration proposed a budgetthat called … to cut $25 million from the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, and also $18 million from the Hospital Preparedness Program.” This and other cuts aren’tthe way to go during a health crisis.  

Indecision and absent Cabinet unity also added problems. Stated inThe New York Times, “as the government’s scientists and leading health experts raised the alarm early and pushed for aggressive action, they faced resistance and doubt at the White House — especially from the president — about spooking financial marketsand inciting panic.” By January, administration in-fighting ranged over whether to close flights from China, what to tell the public and what to do with the passengers trapped on a quarantined cruise ship.  

Diamond also speculates a more sinister possibility for such a lagging initial response.  Discussing the White House’s virus testing delay, he hypothesizes that “more testing might have led to more cases being discovered of coronavirus outbreak, and the president had made [it] clear — the lower the numbers on coronavirus, the better for the president, the better for his potential reelection this fall.”

Additionally, friction between administration members is also cause for concern. As leadership fell to Alex M. Azar II, Trump’s health and human services secretary, he formed a 12-man task force to deal with the coronavirus. Yet, as reported inThe New York Times, critics point to his “decision to leave key health figures off the task force early on, particularly Dr. Stephen Hahn, the F.D.A. commissioner … and Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services,” with the speculated reason being “petty turf wars.”

During this time, Trump also fueled the confusion by firing his current chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney. He’s yet another in the long history of cabinet turnovers, helping further a toxic environment in the White House, where anyone could easily lose their job. Diamond sees this as dangerous in a crisis since administration members are more incentivized to please the president above anything else. He cites how Verma, “in an effort to show that she's cracking down, may actually be creating more problems by having her investigators demanding paperwork, demanding answers at a moment when these nursing home officials are just trying to provide basic patient care to people who have been infected by coronavirus.”      

By now, four months in, President Trump’s position on the coronavirus has somewhat readjusted, especially with an economy clearly in turmoil. He banned travel to Europe, advised the public not to congregate and placed Mike Pence at the head of the effort against the virus.  Yet, however large his efforts to overturn the crisis may be, he wasted his most valuable asset: time.     

Filip De Mott is a sophomore journalism and international affairs major. Contact Filip at demottfs@dukes.jmu.edu.