Speaking from Wilmington, Del., without an audience, former vice president Joe Biden demonstrated what a president should sound like and do in the midst of a pandemic. He was calm, forceful and direct. He had a detailed plan to offer. And most of all, he showed compassion for those afflicted — something President Trump seems incapable of doing — and made clear we are all in this together. “It will infect Republicans, independents and Democrats alike,” Biden said. “It will touch people in positions in power, as well as the most vulnerable in our society.” He added, “The coronavirus does not discriminate based on national origin, race, gender, or Zip code.”

The contrast with Trump’s inept performance Wednesday night was breathtaking. Biden rebuked Trump for xenophobia and blame-casting. “Neither should we panic or fall back on xenophobia,” he said. “Labeling covid-19 a ‘foreign virus’ does not displace accountability for the misjudgments that have been taken thus far by the Trump administration. Let me be crystal clear: The coronavirus does not have a political affiliation.”

He made clear that the White House had dropped the ball, pointing to its failure to test Americans on a massive scale. “The administration’s failure on testing is colossal, and it’s a failure of planning, leadership and execution,” Biden said. “By next week, the number of tests should be in the millions, not the thousands.”

Most important, he laid out a detailed plan both in his speech and in writing, displaying a mastery of the topic and of government light-years beyond anything the White House has devised. The plan would:

Ensure that every person who needs a test can get one — and that testing for those who need it is free. Individuals should also not have to pay anything out of their own pockets for the visit at which the test is ordered, regardless of their immigration status. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) must draw on advice from outside scientists to clarify the criteria for testing, including consideration of prioritizing first responders and health care workers so they can return to addressing the crisis.
Establish at least ten mobile testing sites and drive-through facilities per state to speed testing and protect health care workers. Starting in large cities and rapidly expanding beyond, the CDC must work with private labs and manufacturers to ensure adequate production capacity, quality control, training, and technical assistance. The number of tests must be in the millions, not the thousands.
Provide a daily public White House report on how many tests have been done by the CDC, state and local health authorities, and private laboratories.
Expand CDC sentinel surveillance programs and other surveillance programs so that we can offer tests not only to those who ask but also to those who may not know to ask, especially vulnerable populations like nursing home patients and people with underlying medical conditions. This must be done in collaboration with private sector health care entities.
Task the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to help establish a diagnosis code for COVID-19 on an emergency basis so that surveillance can be done using claims data.

There were additional proposals on guaranteed sick leave (including those who have to care for infected or quarantined people), expanded unemployment benefits, reimbursement for employers whose employees must be quarantined, support to schools for remote learning, aid to states and localities to cover expenses associated with the pandemic and mortgage/rent relief. Unlike Trump, who is warring with allies, Biden recommends “creation of a Global Health Emergency Board to harmonize crisis response for vulnerable communities.” The plan explains, “The Board will convene leadership of the United States, our G-7 partners, and other countries in support of the World Health Organization (WHO) to ensure a coordinated health and economic response globally, especially with respect to vulnerable countries.”

He said he would fully staff all government agencies and entities responsible for global health. He told the audience he could not understand why Trump deactivated the position on the National Security Council responsible for pandemics.

Biden did not over-promise, thereby establishing his credibility. “We will lead by science,” he said. “Downplaying [the coronavirus] and being overly dismissive or spreading misinformation is only going to hurt us and further advantage the spread of the disease.”

Seeing what presidential behavior looks like is enough to bring tears to one’s eyes, especially knowing a new president won’t arrive until January at the earliest. The basics of leadership — mastering the facts that give one authority, displaying empathy, being honest about the extent of the crisis without fomenting panic and giving people a sense that they will not go without care — are entirely beyond Trump’s reach. To see them on display was like finding a precious family heirloom you had misplaced.

Biden closed with a series of promises that should not have been noteworthy. However, they now stand out, a bright light at the end of our very dark Trumpian tunnel. “No President can promise to prevent future outbreaks. But I can promise you that when I’m president, we will prepare better, respond better, and recover better. . . . We will listen to experts and heed their advice. We will rebuild American leadership and rally the world to meet global threats.” He added, “And I will always, always tell you the truth. That is the responsibility of a president. That is what is owed to the American people.” What a delight it would be to have a president who did not compulsively lie.

Biden had a rare opportunity to show how he would do the job. He and his top-notch staff who helped put together the plan hit it out of the ballpark. November cannot come soon enough.

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