Thank goodness for Trump, who is sagely telling us the coronavirus is not like the flu at all.
Of course, one of the people who wanted us to treat the coronavirus as the flu early on was Donald Trump. He repeatedly compared it to the flu as a way of downplaying it.
That Trump would try this new spin is absurd enough on its own. But a newly surfaced report from inside Trump’s own White House makes this line even more preposterous and untenable.
The report was produced in 2019 by the White House Council of Economic Advisers. It was first reported by the New York Times, which noted that the report warned a pandemic could devastate the U.S. economy, but that this warning went “unheeded.”
But for our purposes here, what matters is that the report also explicitly warned against treating a pandemic as a seasonal flu — and demonstrated how such a mind-set could hamper our appreciation of the damage pandemics can do.
That’s very inconvenient for Trump, given his latest spin. At his press briefing on Tuesday, Trump claimed that “many” people argued early on that the correct response to coronavirus was to “ride it out and think of it as the flu.”
“Think what would have happened,” Trump said, adding: “It’s not the flu. It’s vicious.”
But as CNN documents, Trump did this himself — repeatedly. In late February, Trump claimed the coronavirus is “a little like the regular flu,” and that “we’ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner.”
And in early March, Trump said thousands die annually from the flu, but that “nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on,” while claiming coronavirus has proven far less fatal — in effect telling us to ride it out.
This is where the newly discovered report from White House economists comes in.
The White House report
The report’s focus is on influenza pandemics. These can wreak enormous economic damage, the report argues, so the federal government should work with the private sector to develop vaccine responses to them. That’s because ordinary market incentives don’t encourage such innovation, as such vaccines only sell in times of pandemic risk.
Crucially, the report also explains at length the differences between such pandemics and the seasonal flu — and indeed, it stresses that these differences are a key reason we need do more to prepare for them.
It is precisely because pandemics are far more rare than a seasonal flu that “the population largely lacks residual immunity” to them, the report says. It adds that the state of virus-producing infrastructure is behind the curve, in the sense that it cannot ramp up quickly enough in such rare situations.
This means “the infection will spread rapidly during the early weeks of a pandemic, when there is a large pool of unexposed people,” which makes it “imperative to find ways to mitigate the impact.” It recommends federal efforts to speed up vaccine-production technologies for exactly this reason.
Now, in one sense, it would be unfair to hold Trump responsible for failing to heed this report. As James Joyner points out, the report doesn’t say: A pandemic is coming! A pandemic is coming! Its focus is on the damage pandemics do, and on the need to improve readiness for them.
But in a different and important sense, the report does underscore the folly of early comparisons between coronavirus and seasonal flu. It’s the differences between pandemics and the seasonal flu that render the former such a threat. To conflate them is to actively downgrade that threat.
Indeed, this is exactly why public health experts forcefully challenged Trump’s early comparisons of the two. As Charles Ornstein reported back in mid-March, experts were warning that the comparisons were themselves dangerous, because they risked creating the impression that our health system was more prepared for the new coronavirus than it actually was.
As we now are learning, our health system is not remotely prepared for it. And Trump’s regular downplaying of the threat over weeks and weeks is a key culprit. It helped fuel a massive failure to ramp up testing, allowing the coronavirus to rampage, and a failure to deploy federal power to secure needed lifesaving equipment in time for cases to swamp hospitals.
Internal worries about the threat
There’s one other angle here worth pursuing. As the Times notes, this report was done at the request of the National Security Council.
Joshua Geltzer, a senior NSC official from 2015 to 2017, said this suggests NSC officials might have thought pandemic preparedness was a serious matter that needed more focus from the administration.
“If I’m at the NSC, and I’m worried that national security arguments on this issue aren’t getting the leadership’s attention, I might request this study in hopes that economic arguments get more traction,” Geltzer told me. “This shows that at least some NSC officials really worried about the threat.”
Trump’s conflation of the coronavirus with the seasonal flu is only one failing among many, to be sure. But it’s indicative of the broader mind-set that has plagued us all along. This report from the White House itself illustrates this clearly. For Trump to now claim others fell prey to this failing is doubly ridiculous.