I thought — hoped — we had hit a low point in the federal response to the covid-19 pandemic when Vice President Pence, chair of the White House task force on the novel coronavirus, toured the Sunday morning news shows last week to set a world record for saying nothing in the most possible words.

But no. Midweek, presidential economic adviser Stephen Moore sank lower. During an interview with the New York Times, Moore shared a brainstorm for reopening the economy: dress workers in protective “space outfits.” (A joke, supposedly. Ha. Ha.)

Then, President Trump formally announced that the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been grievously misquoted in saying that a second wave of covid-19 infections in the fall could be worse than the current one. He ushered said director to his side, where the man said no, his quote was accurate. Trump also rolled out a bit of his old happy talk: “It may not come back,” he said of a virus far from gone. Anthony S. Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases knocked that one down: “I am convinced we will have coronavirus in the fall.”

Yet the double-dissing paled next to Trump’s ramblings about disinfectants. Somewhere on the short walk from a scientific briefing to the press room podium, a notion had lodged in the presidential cranium, which meant it had to come out: If Lysol or Clorox can kill viruses on countertops, maybe an “injection” could provide covid-19 patients “almost a cleaning.”

Speculation by Fox News and the president about covid-19 cures is making it more difficult for health officials to do their job, says media critic Erik Wemple. (The Washington Post)

For that matter, perhaps some sort of heat lamp could be introduced into patients to kill pathogens much as sunlight disinfects some surfaces, Trump continued. “Have you ever heard of that? The heat and the light relative to certain viruses?” he asked Deborah Birx, the coronavirus task force coordinator, seated nearby. With all the caution of a hostage negotiator calming a delusional gunman, Birx replied gently, “Not as a treatment.”

So that’s the week that was, some 40 days after Trump declared a national emergency. What seemed like the low point was actually a high point. Pence’s triple nothingburger (with lickspittle sauce) was statesmanlike compared with space suits, happy talk and hot lightbulbs down the gullet. Yet each, in its own way, reinforced a single point: We’re on our own, America.

Trump meant it when he said (after his threat to invoke vaguely ominous presidential powers sent his opponents into predictable apoplexy) that he would use the Constitution as an excuse to switch off the White House porch light. His inner circle of sycophants, lightweights and glib TV pundits, ill-managed by his dilettante son-in-law, might be good for a joke or a tall tale. But policy? Leadership? Marie Antoinette: Let them eat cake. Donald Trump: Let them inject Lysol.

He’s leaving this problem to governors and mayors and proprietors of enterprises large and small. He’s leaving it to moms and dads and homebound schoolkids. Open the hair salons — but don’t touch each other. Ramp up the testing — if you can find any swabs. Give us child care — but keep those 4-year-olds six feet apart. Have you thought about space suits?

We are launched on a great experiment. Can this union of states, this republic of shopkeepers, this democratic experiment, this mecca of individual initiative, meet this crisis as one people when our leader is out to lunch?

I’d say the early returns are encouraging. New York has faced a wave of disease and death with courage and aplomb. Cities and hospitals across the country have readied themselves to meet the wave if and when it comes. Scientists have swarmed to their laboratories. Congress has taken difficult votes. Companies have torn up their yearly forecasts and reinvented their workflows. Entertainers have separated from their audiences; athletes have stepped away from their fans — and even surrendered their dreams as their Olympic year passes by. And millions of Americans have tried to understand what we’re up against and do what we can with fortitude and goodwill.

But that’s just the beginning. The coming days, weeks and months will demand more from us. In balancing the need for health and the need for livelihood, people are going to make mistakes. We can minimize those mistakes only by testing widely and responding rapidly to outbreaks of virus and death. This is where Trump’s abdication is most egregious, because the federal government ought to coordinate this crucial project. Instead, states and private industry will have to improvise.

When those inevitable mistakes arise, we’ll need to meet them with patience, resilience and forgiveness. Saving lives and saving the economy are both supremely important. To do them simultaneously will demand a delicate balance and sequence of responses that no one yet has discovered. This isn’t likely to go smoothly, but when it’s over we might say it went well.

The captain and his barmy crew have put us to sea in a lifeboat. We have no choice but to reach shore without them. Let’s keep paddling.

What a week.

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