We’ve suddenly leaped into a real-life thriller movie where the scientists are frantically and futilely warning about a pandemic and the political leaders are pooh-poohing it, determined to squelch fear that might hurt business.
One of Donald Trump’s potentially most fateful acts as president in 2018 was firing the scientist in charge of preparing for a pandemic — a disease that sweeps the globe too fast to be contained — and axing the global health team. Unpersuaded that he might face a global disease catastrophe, this year Trump is proposing a 16 percent cut in the budget of the Centers for Disease Control and a $3 billion cut for the National Institutes for Health.
We’re about to pay the price. The CDC says it is not a question of whether the United States will be hit by the COVID-19 but when. Most likely caused by a bat illegally slaughtered at a food market in Wuhan, China, the virus has infected 78,000 people in China but is now spreading faster outside that country than inside it. The virus apparently has a 2 percent fatality rate, although that might prove to be a little lower or higher once the virus has run its course.
Even as U.S. scientists were warning that this virus is spreading alarmingly fast in Asia and Europe, frantic investors began dumping stock, causing the market to plummet. Trump’s initial reaction was to ignore the scientists and insist everything was “under control” because at that point there were only 60 U.S. cases.
The White House asked Congress for $2.5 billion; Democrats said government scientists say the figure should be $8.5 billion. Trump said he is having a State Department specialist oversee the virus along with Vice President Mike Pence.
Emphasizing that regular influenza outbreaks have killed more than 300,000 Americans in the past decade, Trump insisted stopping all people from China coming into the U.S. has worked, even though the virus is now in 40 plus countries. “We are very, very ready for this,” he insisted.
But we haven’t gotten clear cut answers yet as to how the government will stop the virus when it starts to spread in this country. Will schools and businesses close? How about mass transit? Will we be like cities in China that have virtually shut down?
They key, as always, is to find the virus’ vulnerabilities and develop a vaccine. That takes time, dedication and money.
Meanwhile, we have to act responsibly. Fevers and dry coughs should be treated seriously. If you have been exposed to the virus, take precautions immediately because it can be spread before there are symptoms.
All this shows the importance of not lying to the American people. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. We were told the hurricane that hit Puerto Rico wasn’t bad; it was catastrophic. We were told Muslims from seven countries must be banned from the U.S. because terrorists were flooding into the country and committing terrorist acts. That was not true. Trump said Hillary Clinton won by 2.9 million votes in 2016 because undocumented immigrants voted illegally. That was not true. We were assured by a president with a black pen that the path of a hurricane was different from what it was.
This presidential tendency to play with the truth has happened more than 16,000 times. Initially, Trump tried to make us believe that the coronavirus is a media myth. By reducing resources put in place to deal with such threats as Ebola, against all advice, he endangered us.
At a time like this, the president’s profligate predilection for prevarication is frightening. Conspiracy theories multiply like droplets from a sneeze. People either panic without reason or refuse to take any precautions, scoffing unreasonably at all authority.
Eventually, the virus will peter out. Business will resume normal operations. Travel will return. The stock market optics will change.
It is to be hoped that we will not forget that we were lied to and manipulated at a potentially treacherous time. It is to be hoped that we will not forget that the president tried to shut down science in his impossible quest to go back to the past.
There are other lessons here: Don’t panic, listen to the experts — not self-serving politicians with a history of denying facts, don’t discriminate against Chinese who have nothing to do with the virus, thoroughly wash your hands.
And even the scariest movie always ends.
Ann McFeatters is an OpEd columnist for Tribune News Service.