All the options are bad and Trump is running scared of them
In some ways the world is very fortunate. It may not feel like it at the moment, never mind in a few months or – if we’re lucky – weeks, but pandemics are an inevitable if rare occurrence of nature and the best we can do is ride out the storm with good judgement and timely action.
There is probably no other country on Earth that was as well-placed to respond to the new outbreak as China, where the first epidemic occurred. Nowhere else could have put and kept in place such stringent and wide-ranging containment measures, while also isolating so many sick people, and having or creating the capacity to treat them; all so quickly and so comprehensively. To have done so required awesome state power – physical, human, legal, financial, and (perhaps most importantly), administrative – combined with a public social culture willing to accept and abide by the restrictions.
The consequences of these actions are clear. Despite suffering over 80,000 infections and more than 3,000 deaths from Covid-19, China’s new daily infections are now running in only the dozens at most. The outbreak is all-but contained, for now.
To have implemented those same restrictions, so early, in a country where liberty, democracy and freedom of speech are the norm would probably have been far more difficult; maybe impossible. That Italy has been able to do so even now is remarkable – but even then, having been able to learn from the Chinese experience, Italy has already suffered over 1200 deaths from the disease and while the official number of cases is ‘only’ about 17,500, given what we know about fatality rates, the true figure, once undiagnosed cases are included, is probably several times that.
The worry must be that there are other outbreaks in other countries where tracking has not been so systemic and countermeasures less effective, which have the capability to unleash a wide-scale epidemic.
Which brings us to America. After spending weeks thinking that Covid-19 was a PR problem or, at worst, a stock market issue that required providing reassurance to investors, Trump seems finally to have grasped that there is a very serious human crisis occurring and that his administration is expected to respond to it – perhaps thanks to Dr Anthony Fauci’s testimony to Congress, testimony that the White House itself cut short although only after he had said that without aggressive containment, the US could face “many, many millions [of cases]”. That same evening, Trump instituted the ban on travel from the Schengen Area.
The US, however, is handicapped by more than a bad administration. Even if it wanted to implement the kind of lock-down that China and Italy did, it would find it very hard to. The dispersal of power between different levels of government, the existence of broad constitutionally-guaranteed rights, and limited access to, and scope of, health and welfare safety nets – all make people less likely to voluntarily comply.
That limits the policy choices, of which there are two main ones, in outline:
– The Chinese model: use severe social distancing to attempt to kill the virus by denying it transmissions;
– The British model (so far): attempt to kill or very much limit medium-term transmissions by building up immunity among low-risk groups, while also suppressing cases to prevent an excessive peak;
The problem with the Chinese model is that even if it’s successful, it comes with a grievous economic cost and still leaves the country vulnerable to a new epidemic of infections once the restrictions are lifted, unless the virus has died out across the globe. The problem with the British model is that it accepts up-front a very high number of cases which probably means a great many more deaths than elsewhere, at least in the short term (not that the government has been very up-front about this).
If you are a president hoping to be re-elected in November, neither of those look very palatable. Is there a third way? Trump no doubts hopes so but as his response has been marked throughout by a desire to believe his own words, the likelihood is more that the indecision will end up leaving him being dragged by events. The combination of travel restrictions and organic cancellations of large-scale gatherings (augmented in some places by state-level action), pushes the US more naturally towards the British model but in that case, the messaging that this is all not very much to be worried about is massively off the mark.
That lack of decisiveness and clear direction is something the public can smell, which is the one thing you can’t afford if you’ve sold your brand on being ‘strong’ – especially if they have a lot to blame you for in conventional terms.
That paralysis in reaction (other than where blame can be assigned to an Other), that failure to comprehend the scale of the challenge facing his country and the globe – and the consequences that will now follow both the pandemic and the policy response – will, I think, doom Trump.
November’s election is now no longer the kind of contest Trump revels in. For the first time, he is being tested as a national leader and is being found wanting. Biden is far from a perfect candidate for the Democrats and in normal times I would expect Trump to have beaten him but normal-times rules don’t apply any more. Trump is caught in a pincer between two bad options and doesn’t have the agility, imagination or bravery to escape.