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[Martin Schram] Can we cure pandemic politics?

It is a cliche of our times to hail something as a tipping point -- a happening that will change something forever.

And what Americans experienced throughout Wednesday really didn’t happen in a way that felt like we’d been through a suddenly sensational tipping point. What it felt like, at day’s end, was a more subtle sensation of change that built slowly throughout the day. By nighttime, we began to individually sense that what we had just seen and sensed was a day in which we felt our world tipping, just a bit more, on its axis. And we may never again feel quite as secure -- and confident in our ability to keep ourselves and our families safe.

Our first tip that we might be tipping came in midday. The World Health Organization proclaimed that our planet is officially engulfed in a “pandemic” caused by a highly communicable disease called coronavirus (COVID-19). We are being invaded by an enemy we cannot see and cannot confidently defeat.

Then our news screens poured over us a steady stream of newsbreaks that seemed to turn upside down our nonessential, just everyday enjoyable, wide, wide world of sports and entertainment.

The NCAA’s college basketball lords declared there would be no March Madness in March 2020. The NBA told us there would be no more pro basketball this season. Rock concerts were being cancelled and Broadway theaters were going dark. Companies huge and small were telling employees: please telework. Colleges were rapidly becoming online-only. Public schools were closing.

It was on New Year’s Eve 2019 that China’s government first acknowledged that a new virus had been discovered in the city of Wuhan, and dozens had caught it. Soon came the sad sagas of the vacationers who were quarantined on their cruise ship -- which became de facto petri dishes in which coronavirus flourished and infected. Then came the reports of the deaths, first numbering in the 10s, then the hundreds and more, in China, Asia and elsewhere as the virus that is communicated by droplets from coughing and sneezing, spread rapidly.

So it’s a small world, after all. Yet, many of our friends and neighbors are disbelieving and unprepared to confront the reality. Like Bogie (who famously went to landlocked Casablanca “for the waters”), they were simply misinformed by sources they trusted: President Donald Trump, Fox News and various conservative news sites. For more than a month, Trump has stoked his rally fans and Twitter followers with claims that the coronavirus fears were a “hoax” being spread by Democrats and the “fake news” media to make him look bad and make the stock markets tank. Soon Fox News shows were spreading that as news.

At a Feb. 26 White House briefing room news conference, Trump insisted his policies could not just contain America’s 15 reported coronavirus cases, but eliminate the problem. “When you have 15, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done,” Trump said. Bizarrely, Trump’s Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar had just said that “we can expect to see more cases in the United States.”

Before the coronavirus crisis, Trump had proposed significant cuts in the CDC’s budget (which Congress resisted). Also, his national security council eliminated the job of its adviser for global health problems. Meanwhile, state governors complained Trump’s administration failed to provide them with adequate numbers of test kits. Result: South Korea now tests as many people in a single day as the United States has tested, in total, since the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis.

Wednesday night, Trump followed the WHO’s “pandemic” declaration by banning travel from continental Europe to the United States. But just two days earlier, Trump tweeted: “The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything ... to inflame the CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant.”

But then came a shocker. Trump was publicly rebuked by a most unexpected source. NBC‘s “Today” show host Savannah Guthrie read Trump’s tweet to her guest and then she added her own observation: “There are people out there who believe this and they are going about their business like nothing‘s going on ...people who think it’s just politics and hype.”

To which her guest, Vice President Mike Pence, actually replied:

“Obviously, there’s been some irresponsible rhetoric. The American people should know that President Trump has no higher priority than the health and safety and well-being of the people of this country.”

And lo, the earth moved for us, yet again.


Martin Schram

Martin Schram, an op ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)
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