Trump has one coronavirus tactic. The states have another

At times, it can feel as if something doesn't quite add up

John T. Bennett
Washington DC
Monday 16 March 2020 20:05
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President Trump says: "We're doing really, really well" at Coronavirus press conference

This correspondent has zero coronavirus symptoms. But if one examines life these days, it's hard to avoid coming down with a headache.

Is the room spinning? Or is yet another politician playing doctor again with another endless sermon about hand-washing and measures they're taking to stop the virus outbreak?

It can be a bit much to process as the number of worldwide and US cases climb. Sheltering in place. Distancing yourself. Wash your hands. Wash them again.

Doorknobs suddenly look dangerous. Twitter is even scarier, with frightening headlines bringing news of closings, rumors of worse and the typical vileness.

And then you go outside.

This correspondent learned Sunday afternoon of the Washington DC government placing restrictions on restaurants and bars. So I did what any stressed-out journalist would: I went to a favorite bar to support the staff and put some cash in their pockets before, as seems likely, all such establishments close voluntarily or are forced to.

(Yes, your correspondent went to a bar. Guilty. There was social spacing involved. And while in the bar, I felt nervous about touching the bathroom door handle with my bare hand — but saw a man stroll past outside holding the world’s largest coffee, clearly unbothered about the germs of those who had prepared it for him.)

A country of 360 million people is slowly shutting down over 3,600 confirmed coronavirus cases. Despite assurances from experts that that number will only grow, it often feels like an overreaction. Yet, at other times, one wonders if we are doing enough to stifle its spread.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 10.4 per cent of its value last week, and was down over 1,000 points again on Monday. The directors of that and other global and American indexes have given no indication they might send traders home and live to fight another day — and with more valuable portfolios.

But why not? Why let all that value vanish? CNBC analyst Jim Cramer was almost at a loss for words — and that doesn't happen often — last week as he made a plea to halt the stock slide.

"Over an illness," Cramer said, with a pained expression. "We're going to let China overtake us over an illness?"

Perhaps.

And that often feels like a major overreaction. Or is it?

"These are cascading crises that will feed into each other," said Jon Alterman, a former State Department official, referring to economic problems and other geopolitical matters across the world.

But does this outbreak really require walloping service industry workers? They are set to lose a massive amount in tips.

Then again, what else are local and state officials to do?

It's not like there is clear guidance coming out of Washington.

Donald Trump on Sunday said he has "total control" over the virus. Anthony Fauci, a fellow New Yorker whom the president calls "Tony" and heads federal infectious disease efforts, has described a virtual hellscape with flu-infected Americans overrunning hospitals during an epidemic that might last two months.

The result is uncertainty and shutdowns even in areas that feature no large clusters of confirmed positive cases.

Then again, it's not like there are enough testing kits to go around. That means there might be large clusters in placing shutting down over — and say it with me — "an abundance of caution."

In places like New York State and the District of Columbia, Democratic-run state and local governments are going even further than the Trump-run federal government. At times, it can feel as if something doesn't quite add up.

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday called for "one position" from the federal government that Washington would "coordinate ... with the states."

"If the federal government isn't going to do what it should do," he said during a lengthy press conference, "then the states have to try their best."

The likely economic impacts will be around for a while, after COVID-19 has subsided and it's more or less safe to touch your face or shake hands with a friend.

"If we have the worst model for financial contagion following the viral contagion, you know, we're going to have a different geopolitical equation, possibly," said Michael Green, a former White House National Security Council official. "Usually natural disasters, and this would count, end up in rapid recovery economically a year or so later, as pent-up demand and supply come back into play — usually."

"Not clear if that will happen this time. If there is a significant financial crisis — and this is an if, a big if," he added, somewhat ominously.

Meantime, at the White House, officials seem to be considering just about everything. Larry Kudlow, Trump's top economic adviser, told reporters officials are mulling a financial bailout for airlines and talking about rewarding companies that shift to US-based supply chains.

CNN reported Kudlow and co are also are discussing a national curfew. Though Vice President Mike Pence's spokeswoman quickly denied such a move, it seems Washington is doing more considering than acting.

That means the only way to address a corona-confusion headache is to turn to state officials. During their daily press briefings, White House virus task force officials do more thanking each other than explaining any plan they may or may not have.

Though the slow shutdown sometimes feels like an overreaction, at least Cuomo and other state officials have a plan.

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