Good Leadership on the Pandemic Should Have Been Easy

This piece was published as a newspaper op/ed in mid-May, 2020.

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Ever since my teens, with every major issue our nation has faced, I’ve ask myself, “What would I do if I were President?”

Sometimes the problems have been difficult — like how, during the cold war, to protect American interests and values while also avoiding nuclear war. (I was hired — by a foundation in the early 1980s – to inquire into that very question by interviewing the best minds in the nation from the various relevant fields. Nothing easy about that issue.)

But with this pandemic, I’d have had no difficulty — had I been President — coming up with the right approach to the most basic challenge: how to bring the coronavirus under control with minimal damage to the health of the American people.

If, as President, I was brought word of a rising pandemic threat – as people started telling Trump repeatedly starting in early January –I’d have turned to the people who’d spent their lives studying how viral epidemics unfold and how they’re best combatted, and I’d ask: “What do you suggest we do?”

Given the substantial agreement there’d have been among the epidemiologists, once I’d put them through their paces to explain their reasoning and respond to some questioning, I pretty certainly would substantially follow their advice.

Scientists are not infallible. But in every field the extent of the expertise that has been developed so far outstrips what the average educated person knows that it is almost always right to say: On scientific questions, the knowledge of a scientific field is the very best available to humankind. Although the scientists aren’t always right, it is far better to rely on their deep knowledge than on the ignorance of politicians and everyone else.

It is a safe bet that if someone – universally respected in the field — like Anthony Fauci were allowed to design the American strategy for combatting the virus, that plan would be first-rate. Probably an A. Unlikely less than a B+.

Around the world, other countries have done just that –New Zealand, Australia. Germany.

The South Koreans learned of the pandemic at the same time America’s leadership did, but their actions have kept the number of deaths down to less than three hundred, while the United States has suffered the death of more than 85,000 Americans and counting.

The South Koreans were guided by the expertise of the epidemiologists, while the United States was crippled by having a President who failed to take the obvious course.

Trump ignored the experts, putting his own views ahead of theirs. When experts spoke out, Trump repeatedly muzzled them, rather than allow them to contradict the crazy and false things he chose to say.

In the Republican world, this disregard of the experts is not confined to Trump.

There have been exceptions: some Republican leaders — like Governors DeWine of Ohio and Hogan of Maryland – have followed a wise and responsible course. But a number of Republican Governors (like in Georgia, Texas, and Iowa) have shown the same apparently disastrous combination of ignorance and recklessness as Trump, pushing for re-opening while ignoring what the experts say is required both to control the virus and to restore economic activity successfully.

On the news, we see Republican activists attacking those who listen to the experts (like the Democratic Governor of Michigan). But we don’t hear them calling on the President to make better use of the powers (that only a President possesses) to organize and equip the nation to enable it to re-open wisely while also containing the deadly epidemic.

One reads that the Europeans are pitying us for our national failure—which has its roots, of course, at the very top of this Republican world.

Beyond this President’s arrogance of disrespecting those who know the most; and beyond Trump’s apparent incompetence to mobilize an effective national response; Donald Trump has shown from the outset that his overriding concern has been irresponsibly self-serving—all about protecting his political prospects, rather than protecting the American people against a deadly disease.

Every previous American President, I’d wager, would have taken his responsibilities as President so seriously – in such a time of danger — that their one priority would be to serve the nation well.

It is extraordinary how little sign Trump has given of his being motivated by a sense of responsibility toward the nation.

The costs of Trump’s extraordinary failure of leadership has likewise been extraordinary in its costs to the nation. Had he responded in the manner quite obviously required – and we know this from the evidence from other nations — tens of thousands of American deaths could have been prevented. And the economy could have been opened sooner and more safely.

What this failure exposes should be more than enough to persuade any American with open eyes to reject Donald Trump at the polls this November.

 

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