Trumps Coronavirus Policies Dont Tackle the Pandemic

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In a speech from the Oval Office at the White House Wednesday night, President Donald Trump laid out new, aggressive policies designed, he said, to combat the further spread of the disease Covid-19—which, earlier Wednesday, the World Health Organization officially designated a pandemic. Among those new policies: a ban on travel from Europe (but not the United Kingdom), effective Friday, and low-interest loans to small businesses adversely affected by the disease. The president also said he’d ask Congress for more money, $50 billion, to fund those loans, and that he’d push back the April deadline for federal taxes. “Because of the economic policies we have put into place over the last three years, we have the greatest economy anywhere in the world by far,” President Trump said. “This is not a financial crisis. This is just a temporary moment of time that we will overcome together as a nation and a world.”

These are major policies to undertake during a crisis. That makes sense; it’s a major crisis. At least 126,000 people around the world have contracted the disease, and more than 4,600 are dead—38 in the United States. But the policies don’t exactly address the pandemic—at least not in the way public health experts and scientists have been hoping the government would. These policies are more crisis-adjacent. As the disease-response expert Jeremy Konyndyk said on Twitter immediately after the speech, “economic measures are necessary, but they’re treating the symptoms.”

Research suggests that China’s ban on letting people leave Wuhan, the city where the virus emerged, came too late to slow down the progress of the virus within China, but slowed transmission by up to 80 percent elsewhere. Asian countries that banned immigration from China earlier this year did seem to slow the progress of the disease, but they were also testing people for infection internally and building out their public health systems. People looking back at other outbreaks, though—like SARS and MERS, or Ebola—tend to find that travel bans don’t work at all. They especially don’t work after community spread of the virus has begun—which it has, between people already in the United States. The barn door’s open, the horses are in the field somewhere. Also, travel is still OK from the United Kingdom, which not only has sustained Covid-19 infections (including the Health Minister) but is likely to announce that it is moving from a containment phase to “delay,” which means social distancing and self-isolation of sick people. Their horses have left their barn too.

At first, it seemed like banning travel from Europe meant more than just people. “There will be exemptions for Americans who have undergone appropriate screenings,” President Trump said. But, he added, “anything coming from Europe to the United States is what we are discussing.” When the president spoke, he seemed to include cargo in the ban, which could have caused even bigger problems. The kits for testing whether someone is infected with Covid-19 have been in drastic short supply, and only a few thousand Americans have gotten tested so far (by contrast, something like 10,000 South Koreans get tested every day). The supplies for manufacturing those kits, “primers” made from the genetic material RNA, are running low, and at least some of those come from European pharmaceutical companies. But the Department of Homeland Security quickly issued what must be considered a clarification—just people, not US citizens, not stuff. A White House statement confirmed it didn’t cover cargo, too.

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(Eh, whaddaya gonna do? The president also said, “Earlier this week, I met with the leaders of health insurance industry who have agreed to waive all copayments for coronavirus treatments,” but spokespeople from that industry quickly, well, clarified that they were going to cover copayments for testing, not treatment. And none of that helps the uninsured. One of the key components of handling a disease outbreak is clear, cogent, honest communication from leaders, it seems important to add here.)

What was in the new policies was perhaps less striking than what was not: The president made no mention of help in manufacturing or purchasing personal protective equipment for health care workers. He didn’t mention building surge capacity for hospitals facing the possibility of huge numbers of people needing care—what’s happening in Italy right now. He only hinted at some sort of paid sick leave for people who are quarantined (a bill that would have gotten that set up was blocked in the US Senate Wednesday by the Republican chair of the responsible committee, Lamar Alexander), or help for people whose jobs don’t allow them to stop working or work from home, as social distancing mitigation measures require.

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These are the kinds of things that let a country flatten the curve—slow down the spread of illness, reduce pressure on hospitals, buy time for new therapies. But you have to make it financially possible for everyone to participate. As Scott Burris, director of the Center for Public Health Law Research at Temple Law School, told me a couple of weeks ago, “Equity and effectiveness go closely together in these situations.” The president instead merely urged people to wash their hands, cover their sneezes and coughs, and stay home if they’re sick. Necessary, but not exactly sufficient.

“I will always put the well-being of America first. If we are vigilant and we can reduce the chance of infection, which we will, we will significantly impede the transmission of the virus,” President Trump said. “The virus will not have a chance against us. No nation is more prepared or more resilient than the United States.” It’s a good sentiment, but so far federal policy hasn’t borne it out. The federal government is finally directing its massive, ponderous machinery at the new coronavirus, but most of that machinery’s going in the wrong direction.


More From WIRED on Covid-19

Read more: https://www.wired.com/story/trumps-coronavirus-policies-dont-tackle-pandemic/

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