Terry H. Schwadron
March 21 2020
There is a tangible sense that we’re in the period of real struggle in this virus spread, which, for now, remains an unending vista of simultaneous challenges. And, over there, just over the horizon, is an illusory sense of control over the circumstances we face.
Between the two is a war zone that is playing out in any number of practical problems — all on the public stage — in how we communicate what needs to happen, in how we keep people calm, and in believing that we are all looking at the same set of issues.
Unless you are among those people who simply deny reality, people who insist that this whole thing is media-inspired hype, you accept that we have a real set of medical, economic, logistical and social problems that just won’t seem to quit. Over here it’s a week of quarantine — now a couple of months — of isolation; over there, it’s a sea of test kits that regular doctors still think they can’t get tests to their patients.
Logic tells us, of course, that eventually we will find a vaccine, treatments and a workable-enough system to respond to surges of illness. We understand, even if the White House doesn’t, that it will take time to deliver actual fixes for actual problems.
In the meantime, we cannot help but recognize that we have very imperfect responses that are being repeated around the world. We keenly feel a need for a steady public hand in our leadership. We can never hope to share common perceptions about the exact make-up of the solutions, but we ought to be able to share common understanding of the actual problems.
Indeed, the globe is showing a fractured, if similar, pattern of isolated but under-coordinated leadership.
But watching the daily White House briefings, for days now led by Donald Trump himself, that seems not to be happening, even after a month or more of pounding the same themes over and over.
The basic issue here is that we count on the president and team for an informed, honest assessment. This White House is incapable of delivering almost any of that on a day-to-day basis. In its place are rose-colored projections, or worse, Trump’s personal opinion that some malaria drug should work and do so immediately — despite cautionary statements 30 seconds later from the nation’s top infectious disease doctor.
Trump, the self-designated coronavirus wartime president, said the country is awash in testing kits, while the mayor of Los Angeles, who announced a lockdown of that city, said he was able to provide 200 tests yesterday to his city’s residents.
While hospital administrators, public health doctors and state departments of health are literally begging for protective gear, the president said he has indeed invoked the World War II-era Defense Production Act to require manufacturers tool up for making medical equipment. But he has been unable to say how many ventilators actually will be made on what kind of schedule by what company. Indeed, he is not telling any private contractors what they should be doing, and is, instead, hearing from them about how to put idle workers back in the factory to make ventilators or masks instead of cars. In other words, at a moment when the country is looking for reassurance that the various levels of government are working together to assure we have enough machines to meet the anticipated problem.
At times, it does not seem obvious that Trump knows how to organize a team, distributing actual power and authority in a crisis, just as it is clear that he does not know how to listen to anyone with actual expertise.
Calling the virus names that draw a racial response is not good management, nor is telling reporters at press conferences that they are asking “nasty” questions. Nor is exiling various Cabinet members who may not come across well on television, but may have the actual factual information. Nor is denying your own history in this crisis, and rewriting a cleaned-up propagandistic story.
Trump critics see the continuing sense of bumbling, of substitution his personal opinion for Science, his insistence on seeing only the polished performance of his presidency, as examples of incompetence and a need for political supremacy in the situation.
In reality, it may be closer to Trump’s need, along with the rest of us, for Control in an uncontrollable situation.
Right now, however, nothing here is “immediate,” as Trump insists, and yet Trump feels an obvious need to project that things are relatively under control. Things don’t just happen in his world, they rise up in challenge to him, and he needs to strike them down to extend his own control by controlling what questions are asked, what red tape he thinks he is eliminating, by defeating the disease itself.
Our reality tells us, though, that these things are not under control in the financial markets, among people who are lower-income, among parents trying to arrange home-schooling for an uncertain future, not to anyone over 70.
Jared, Ivanka, Lindsey or whoever is serving as Trump-whisperer these days ought to tell Trump he’d be a lot more successful acknowledging the complexity of the problems, and assuring people that we may have a lot more of the answers in a couple of months.