For many months now, it has been absolutely clear that President Trump has simply never had it in him — or worse, has been maliciously unwilling — to make the decision to marshal the full force of the federal government to defeat the coronavirus.

Instead, he has sought to fill that vacuum with illusions — first with the illusion that it wasn’t a threat, then with the illusion that he’d resolved to act as a “wartime president” against it and then finally with the illusion that it is again largely behind us and is on track to “disappear.”

Now we’ve come full circle: The White House has a new strategy that is again supposed to demonstrate Trump’s resolve against the virus. But, although there are some good things here, its political packaging again showcases this very same devotion to manufacturing illusions.

It’s called the “Embers Strategy.” Axios reports that the White House is unveiling the new strategy, which entails sending top health officials and additional medical equipment to coronavirus hot spots around the country.

The White House has dubbed it the Embers Strategy with clear political goals in mind:

The push is part of a larger effort to show that President Trump is taking the pandemic seriously, something White House officials describe as a "renewed focus."
The new campaign comes as top Trump advisers have told the president to concentrate his coronavirus messaging on progress with vaccines and therapeutics in an effort to shift the focus of the election conversation to who would be better at reviving the economy.
Its name, the “Embers Strategy," is meant “to highlight the risk level of 'embers’ to decrease the likelihood of ‘fires,’” a senior White House official said.

The imagery of embers may seem unthreatening and even comforting. Indeed, that’s almost certainly the point — to create the impression that what remains of the coronavirus is a gentle glow here and there that you associate with your childhood camping trips.

Even as the number of U.S. coronavirus cases passes 3 million, President Trump has repeatedly played down covid-19’s toll on the country. (The Washington Post)

Indeed, it would be surprising if this language hadn’t been poll-tested up the wazoo. The White House has tentatively been experimenting with this embers language for some time: Trump tweeted in June that our economy was vaulting back, and that any coronavirus “embers” would be “put out as necessary.”

And even earlier than that, Vice President Pence approvingly told governors that Trump has been describing what remained of the virus as “embers,” which was supposed to be persuasive and reassuring to them.

Since then, of course, the coronavirus has once again surged in many states across the country, especially in places such as Arizona, Florida and North Carolina, which will be crucial to Trump’s reelection hopes. At the same time, Trump continues to urge a rapid reopening.

That’s why the new embers language is not just misleading but could also prove actively destructive. It’s supposed to highlight risk level, the White House claims, but the deliberate implication is that the current state of the coronavirus can be contained by purely localized and focused actions, like dousing embers with a splash from your trusty canteen.

This, in turn, is meant to feed the illusion that we can roar back to reopening safely. But right now, rather than isolated and targeted acts, we need concerted and comprehensive action, both by the federal government and by all of us acting collectively.

The importance of analogies in public health

Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, points out that analogies are an important communication tool during public health emergencies, but that they can also be abused.

“If you use the wrong analogy, you can give people a misleading impression of their own risk,” Konyndyk told me. “Embers are kind of what’s left after the fire has mostly gone out. And that is not where we are with this outbreak. Embers is where Europe is.”

As it happens, the fire analogy is often used in public health emergencies, Konyndyk noted, for the purpose of accomplishing a specific communications goal: Alerting the public in a way that improves people’s conduct, both for individual and collective good.

“We do not have in this country much experience with large scale disease outbreaks,” Konyndyk told me. “So people don’t have an intuitive understanding of what to do. Explaining something in terms of fire is a helpful way of characterizing the risk in a way that people intuitively understand.”

“If you frame that analogy in the wrong way, it could lead to letting our guard down too early," Konyndyk said, suggesting that this may be the point: “The whole policy of the administration has been focused on getting the country to let its guard down too early.”

In this sense, the new strategy actually refutes itself. It’s meant to demonstrate a new seriousness on Trump’s part. But it also feeds public impressions in a way that prioritizes Trump’s political needs — downplaying long term risks to get people to resume economic activity on his reelection timetable — rather than showing actual seriousness about what we’re still up against.

To be clear, some of what the new strategy will do is good, if officials carry it out. It includes public health surrogates appearing in hot-spot media markets to urge mask-wearing and social distancing. That’s important.

But we need a lot more. We still need more comprehensive mask-wearing, a national testing strategy, far more federal coordination in supplying equipment so the states aren’t mostly fending for themselves and far more caution than Trump is showing when it comes to reopening schools.

And we need Trump and the White House to stop using clever language about “embers” to describe the now-raging pandemic, which is designed to obscure all of those urgent needs from view.

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