British soldiers in World War I were widely believed to have sacrificed their lives needlessly in futile offensives ordered by incompetent generals ensconced in comfortable chateaux far from the front. They were said to be “lions led by donkeys.”

Today, the lions are the medical professionals risking their lives to fight the worst pandemic in a century. They are worthy successors to the first responders who rushed into the collapsing towers on 9/11 and the soldiers who stormed the beaches of Normandy. But, like the Tommies in the Great War, they are being betrayed by many of their political leaders. They are being asked to go into harm’s way without an adequate supply of protective masks, gowns and gloves — or enough ventilators to treat patients.

One doctor treating covid-19 patients in New Jersey emailed me: “I am furious, terrified, exhausted, and sad. I have been trying to reach the president, the governor, the CDC, anyone I thought might help, for over a month, knowing what was coming. I couldn’t break through. And now I don’t know how many patients we can save, or if I’ll survive this awful crisis.”

His anger and despair are widely shared. “We are at war with no ammo,” a surgeon in Fresno, Calif., told the New York Times, which explained that “she had no access to even the most basic surgical masks in her outpatient clinic.” “We’re getting pounded,” a doctor at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York told the Wall Street Journal. “I’ve been in ICU care for 15 years, and this is the worst I have ever seen things.”

The number of cases has not yet crested, and already the situation has become so dire that hospitals are reusing masks, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are advising nurses and doctors to make do with bandannas or scarves. Yet President Trump still refuses to invoke the Defense Production Act to order manufacture of supplies, apparently because it conflicts with his selective application of free-market ideology. Trump has tried to save selected industries (agriculture, coal, steel) from market forces — but he won’t act to save lives now.

Last week, Trump told states that they are on their own: “The Federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. You know, we’re not a shipping clerk.” Governors are doing the best they can, but as New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) said on Sunday, it’s counterproductive to force them to “get into this mad bidding war” for supplies.

Trump is now contemplating making life for medical providers much more difficult by hinting that he may lift social-distancing restrictions next week, even as the virus rages out of control. (The number of cases in the United States doubled between Friday and Monday.) This would be directly contrary to the advice of epidemiologists, who are saying it’s imperative to shut down the entire country for 14 days to stop the pandemic.

Trump is hearing the unvarnished truth from experts such as Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Predictably, though, the president can’t handle the truth. The New York Times reports that Trump “has become frustrated with Dr. Fauci’s blunt approach at the briefing lectern, which often contradicts things the president has just said.” Fauci is the leader of the lions, and he may be sacrificed to keep the head donkey happy.

Trump is the worst leader we could possibly have at a time like this, but there are, alas, plenty of other profiles in ignominy in our capital. They include Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who myopically boasted that the coronavirus would be good for American jobs; Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who visited the Senate offices, pool and gym while waiting for the results of a coronavirus test (it was positive); and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who sold stocks before the stock market crash after receiving top-secret briefings on the chaos the virus was likely to cause.

The country’s governors and mayors have generally performed far better than the politicos in Washington. Cuomo, in particular, has become a shadow president — his crisp, calm, clear televised briefings, reminiscent of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “fireside chats,” are far removed from Trump’s preening, self-pitying, fact-free performances at the White House. The governors of states such as California, Washington, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Maryland — both Republicans and Democrats — have also shown true leadership in a crisis. But even at the state level there are plenty of donkeys such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, who refuses to close all the state beaches that have been mobbed during Spring Break. “Asked to explain,” the Miami Herald noted in a scorching editorial, “the governor delivered a rambling, incoherent monologue that went on for too long.”

We expect medical professionals to risk their lives to save ours, and they are fully meeting our elevated expectations. They are the heroes of the hour. If only we had more political leaders who would act in ways worthy of their service and sacrifice.

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