When the 1918 pandemic was all over, the worldwide death toll was at least 50 million with about 675,000 in the United States. The estimated number of deaths from the 1968 pandemic: 1 million worldwide, and about 100,000 in the United States.
But we survived both of them, as with others in the past.
At issue is not whether we will “get through” the novel coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease officially dubbed covid-19. Pandemics eventually play out. Though this dangerous virus is spiraling out of control today — infecting more than 250,000 people and killing more than 11,000 since December — it will not be here forever.
What matters most at this moment is how the onslaught is being handled. Is it being addressed head-on as a global pandemic that, above all else, must be combated? Or is the outbreak being treated as an unexpected threat to Trump’s personal political fortunes?
Sadly, with all the country now has on its hands, Trump has politicized and personalized the problem.
In a television interview in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 22, the day after the first U.S. case was announced, CNBC’s Joe Kernan asked Trump, “Are there worries about a pandemic at this point?” Trump’s response? “No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
U.S. cases have now soared to more than 16,000, with 190 deaths. The numbers are climbing.
At a Feb. 10 campaign rally in New Hampshire, Trump said, regarding China and coronavirus: "The virus, they’re working hard. Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.”
The U.S. government’s covid-19 response plan assumes the “pandemic will last 18 months or longer and could include multiple waves of illness.”
As for a vaccine? Said Trump in a news conference in New Delhi on Feb. 25, “We’re very close to a vaccine." The U.S. government’s own health experts say a vaccine is months away.
But what is covid-19? At a Feb. 26 White House press briefing, Trump said a coronavirus infection is “a little bit like the flu. It’s a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for. And we’ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner.” Infectious disease experts warn that infection poses a threat many times graver to vulnerable groups.
Besides, said Trump in remarks to reporters on March 6: “Anybody that wants a test can get a test.” That was false then, and it’s still false now.
Besides spouting untruths and wild exaggerations, Trump deflects challenges to his stewardship by shifting blame — to former president Barack Obama and past administrations, to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats on the Hill, to the Federal Reserve, and to the media, which, he whines, only give him bad press.
Now, confronted with hard truths about the disease, his administration’s muddled response and the country’s economic collapse, Trump is trying to switch hats from belittler in chief to wartime commander. But our great war presidents had great wartime generals: Harry Truman had Dwight D. Eisenhower; Abraham Lincoln had Ulysses S. Grant. Vice President Pence, who is heading up Trump’s coronavirus task force, is no Eisenhower or Grant. And Trump sure as hell is no Truman or Lincoln.
When looking for a leader in these public health and economic crises, skip over Donald Trump.
Look instead to a bipartisan group of public executives such as Govs. Larry Hogan (R) of Maryland, Gavin Newsom (D) of California (D), Gretchen Whitmer (D) of Michigan, Andrew Cuomo (D) of New York, Mike DeWine (R) of Ohio, Jay Inslee (D) of Washington state, and the District’s own Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who has been both aggressive in planning and steady as a rock in execution.
Count on Congress, the Federal Reserve and resilient Americans with economic and business know-how to dig us out of the hole into which we have plunged.
Let’s just get through this with as little of Trump as possible.