Nobody has the foggiest idea how much the novel coronavirus is ultimately going to affect our health, our economy and maybe, in the long run, our culture.
But it has highlighted how America is suffering already from another crippling disease: the total politicization of everything.
That the first instinct of some of our political leaders when faced with a possible pandemic is to trade juvenile political insults is just the latest low point in our partisanship epidemic. And it might be the most dangerous yet.
It starts at the top, of course. President Trump’s impulse to portray himself as having defeated the virus a week ago, and then to excoriate those who disagreed as perpetrating “a hoax,” should go down in history on the list of all-time wrongheaded presidential hubris.
“Within a couple days, (it is) going to be down to close to zero,” Trump confidently declared about the bug just six days ago.
This is inexcusable behavior by a top public official. What’s most vital in a disease outbreak is solid, honest information. Our top public official bragging and insulting his way through it all, for partisan point-scoring, is an extreme example of what has become a national sickness.
This is no slag on politics generally. Partisan politics is incredibly useful as a frame for the public to make decisions about policy issues. But some things simply have to be beyond it, at least in the moment. It’s like how they used to say that politics stops at the water’s edge. Aren’t we all by definition on the same team when a virus invades?
Trump is by far our top tribal politicizer of absolutely everything, but he isn’t the only one. When Trump curtailed flights from China a month ago to try to stem the virus from spreading here, he was lambasted by some on the left for xenophobia. Fine, that’s a policy disagreement, but it sure looks now like it was one that Trump got right. Yet I haven’t heard a single Democrat offer even the most grudging admission about it — which matters, because now, more extreme lockdown measures may be in the offing.
It was likewise disappointing that Gov. Jay Inslee chose to kick off our state’s response to the crisis like this:
“I just received a call from VP Mike Pence, thanking Washington state for our efforts to combat the coronavirus,” Inslee tweeted late last week. “I told him our work would be more successful if the Trump administration stuck to the science and told the truth.”
So … the veep called to thank the governor, and instead of using this rare ceasefire opening to wrangle some coronavirus testing kits or have a frank conversation about possible unpopular lockdown measures, the governor opted to dunk on him.
Inslee got 308,000 likes for that tweet. So in a sense, it worked, as the base loved it, so … victory!
Even though Inslee has a point — we desperately need more science and truth — it seems like no time for him to go to political war with the federal government. Now nine people have died and the public isn’t any more prepared, politically, for what it might take to slow the disease’s spread.
I’ve instead taken to following the postings of scientists – especially the local blog by Trevor Bedford, an infectious disease researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. They’re the ones who revealed that the genetic fingerprint of the virus indicates it has been spreading undetected in the Seattle area for six weeks.
Monday, Bedford projected that once some testing is done, Seattle likely will be found to have around 600 infections. So our city will resemble Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak, back around January 1st “when they were reporting the first clusters of patients with unexplained viral pneumonia,” he wrote.
“Three weeks later, Wuhan had thousands of infections and was put on large-scale lock-down,” Bedford went on. “However, these large-scale non-pharmaceutical interventions to create social distancing had a huge (positive) impact on the resulting epidemic. China averted many millions of infections through these intervention measures and cases there have declined substantially.
“This suggests that this is controllable,” he concluded. “We’re at a critical junction right now … we can still mitigate this substantially.”
Now that is bold transparency in real time, broaching hard data and provocative but constructive ideas without regard to political fallout. Imagine if our actual leaders displayed this sort of openness, curiosity and competency.
It’s really bad timing for a super bug to start going around, when our political system was already so sick.